I sometimes worry about the leftward edge of the Yes Scotland coalition. My own politics are very much at that end of the spectrum, but a few times in recent months – most notably when the SNP changed its policy on NATO – I’ve been concerned about the campaign putting the cart before the horse. Some very angry commentary on the NATO issue appeared to imply that we might as well stay in the Union if an independent Scotland was going to sign up to the Alliance, petulantly throwing away all the other progress that independence would enable like a toddler in a huff.
The crucial thing to remember about the referendum is that the “downtrodden masses” are no longer the majority. The great triumph and great evil of Thatcherism, as practiced by both Tory and Labour governments over the last 30 years, was to deliberately and successfully marginalise the poor by bribing those just above them. Hard-pressed homeowners are understandably terrified of falling into the apocalyptic pit of misery that seethes just below them, and have been conditioned to view the poor below, not the rich above, as the greatest threat to their security.
Years and years of attack pieces in the right-wing press have created a culture where working-class people have been persuaded to hate “scroungers”, in the form of the unemployed, the sick, and the disabled rather than those who’ve actually bankrupted the country. The word “fairness” has been cynically inverted and perverted to depict the relatively well-off as victims and the poor as the greedy villains.
Poll after poll suggests support for independence is greatest among the poor, and weakest – rationally enough – among those who are doing best out of the status quo. But the poor alone are not great enough in number to win the referendum. If we unite around a “soak the rich” banner, and a vision of Scotland dictated by those who garner just a few percent of the vote between them in elections, we will enjoy a great feeling of moral superiority, and we will lose.
So I was a little nervous about the tenor and outcome of the “Radical Independence Conference” which took place in Glasgow this weekend.
If the account given by Pat Kane on his “Thoughtland” blog today is anything to go by, those fears may be if not entirely unfounded, then at least exaggerated. It’s a splendid and heartening piece, which heightened my sense of disappointment at not having been able to attend. It portrayed a sensible, thoughtful, inclusive gathering of ideals tempered by pragmatism and realism, conspicuously noted by Kane as he walks the streets of Glasgow city centre after the conference. Ironically (given the name), the event appears to have been moderate, in all the best ways.
Robin McAlpine’s “declaration” for the Conference was plainly-spoken, elegant and inspiring. (You can read it in full at the end of Kane’s blog.) It doesn’t entirely allay our fears that independence will be presented – as suggested by Labour activist Ian Smart this morning in one of his increasingly rare moments of lucidity – such that “an independent Scotland could be the sort of place that lost Labour the 1983 General Election”, but it steps carefully and for the most part lightly.
I don’t mean any of this in a “don’t frighten the horses” way. I’m not proposing that the Yes campaign should lie to the people, acting all nice and centrist until we win and then plunging Scotland straight into old-school 1970s socialism. Quite apart from the moral aspects, that would be a plan doomed to certain defeat. (Which party would enact such policies? Can we really see Scotland electing a Green- or SSP-led government in 2016 after a Yes vote?)
Rather, the point independence supporters MUST keep at the forefront of their minds for the next two years is that in order to change Scotland for the better, we have to win independence first. Too many on the left are happy to occupy the impotent moral high ground, in which principles are proudly displayed as badges of personal honour even as the hundreds of years of progress those principles once brought are turned to ashes around them, by parties who have recognised the very different world we now live in and learned how to seize and deploy its power.
I am, to my core, on and of the left. But I’ve also lived my entire adult life under governments of the right, and time and again I’ve watched the left either be cleverly outmanoeuvered or commit suicide at the point of victory with the opposition in disarray. England is doomed beyond hope of salvation – for as long as the United Kingdom survives, at least – by Labour’s systematic betrayal of its own values, and is regressing towards a dark New Feudalism at a breakneck speed few imagined possible after the hung-Parliament election of 2010. Millions in the north of the country cast pointless, worthless, hopeless votes for want of an alternative.
Scotland still has a chance to escape and set an example of a better way, and anyone threatening that must be regarded with merciless contempt, for the sake of everyone who lives on these islands. The Conservative commentator Hamish Macdonell had a piece in the Independent yesterday titled “Radicals threaten Salmond and Scottish independence campaign”, depicting both the real danger and the massively amplified and distorted version of it which will be used by the Unionist parties and media.
I’m cautiously but significantly encouraged, then, by the reports from the Radical Independence Conference. We on the left must put forward the reasons independence is worth fighting for, but we must also remember that principles don’t vote – people do. The youthful activists driving much of the campaign should heed the experience of the older among us, and be left in no doubt that there is no comfort in saying “We didn’t compromise” if you lose. Unlike elections, if we blow the referendum there won’t be another one along in four or five years. This is our first chance in three centuries, and it may very well be the only one we get.
Wings Over Scotland will continue to present the case for independence – not impartially but truthfully, with facts sourced and cited – and we will fight all of its enemies, be they in the opposition camp or our own. If the reports from RIC2012 are accurate, the latter category will occupy far less of our time than we feared.