Why the Movement for Scottish Independence Has to Remain Radical

by Liam Young

13 October 2016

Maria Navarro Sorolla/Flickr

On 18 September 2014 Scotland voted to reject independence and remain part of the United Kingdom.

The referendum witnessed the birth of a huge grassroots movement involving well-attended meetings held in communities up and down the country, with many people getting active in politics for the first time. In large part, this mass participation was due to the nature of the campaign which placed equality, democracy and poverty reduction at the heart of a radical vision for the future.

#Indyref2 and the EU.

A major argument against independence was the threat it would pose to Scotland’s EU membership. The recent vote to leave the EU has proved the reverse to be the case, and in the process raised the possibility of another independence referendum. Before the EU referendum the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, clearly stated that if the UK voted to leave and Scotland voted remain, she would consider the scenario grounds for calling another vote on independence.

These early indications suggest the focus of a future pro-independence campaign will be the issue of preserving EU membership. On the surface this would appear to make sense: one of the groups least likely to support independence in 2014 were non-Scottish residents, who might now be more easily persuaded. But this presents a challenge to the independence movement – according to a recent poll, 10% of Yes voters said they would no longer support independence if it was tied to EU membership.

What drove the Yes vote in 2014?

However the main threat to delivering a positive vote to leave the UK may instead come from the inability of a timid mainstream campaign to enthuse the many working class people who were previously inspired to vote Yes. The independence referendum saw a turnout of 84.6% – the highest ever recorded in a UK vote since universal suffrage was introduced. This is an indication that many participants in the independence referendum had never previously voted, many of whom came from some of the most deprived communities in Scotland. It is also notable that people who were unemployed or from poorer areas were much more likely to vote for independence. It is clear the referendum captured the imagination of many of those with nothing to lose and everything to gain from challenging the status quo.

This was not the case at the beginning of the campaign when the agenda was set mainly by mainstream politicians. It focused more on what would remain the same in the result of a Yes vote rather than what would change. The monarchy, currency and membership of both the EU and Nato would all be maintained in the event of independence. The polls before 2014 regularly showed support for independence languishing between 25% and 35%, and they only began to increase from the beginning of 2014. The gap between Yes and No reduced drastically as those in favour of independence rose to 45%, with much of this increased support coming from working class people.

Real potential, real purpose.

In part this was achieved by the efforts of grassroots campaigning groups outside the mainstream, such as Women for Indy and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). These groups were able to create spaces outwith the narrow paradigm of conventional politics, allowing people to come together and formulate what kind of Scotland they wanted. The slogan ‘another Scotland is possible’ was born, and people began to rally to the potential for real change that the movement for independence seemed to offer.

The mass participation went further than just voting. Pro-independence groups sprouted up organising mass canvases, registering people to vote, holding meetings and political discussions all over Scotland. The nature of these groups was important – the emphasis was on participation, with those attending setting their own agenda and discussing issues which actually affected their lives. It was this participation which transformed the independence movement into something with a real sense of purpose and empowerment, it was then that many working class people began to feel it could change their lives. This process led to a rise in support for independence amongst people in traditionally Labour-supporting areas such as Glasgow, west Dunbartonshire, north Lanarkshire and Dundee.

Taking on the democratic deficit.

In many ways the independence campaign was a product of the same malady which has affected many countries since the 2008 financial crash. The steady attack on social services and workers’ wages under the label of austerity has met little or no resistance from the traditional political parties. Across the world we’ve witnessed a reaction from those most affected by these policies, which can be seen in the movements surrounding Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. These movements may have different characteristics, but they are all a rooted in a sense of democratic deficit created by the financial crisis, and have emerged as a way of people attempting to assert control over their elected representatives.

In Scotland it was the same mood which injected the independence campaign with such a radical edge, in the process engaging many people in politics for the first time. After the referendum many of those who had become politically involved through the campaign went on to join the Scottish National party (SNP). The sheer scale of the post-referendum influx of people into the SNP presents the danger of the movement being absorbed into the party, and party loyalty taking precedence over the movement. It is vital this does not limit the ability of the independence movement to create spaces which develop radical alternatives and encourage mass participation of those with most to gain from change.

An independent independence movement.

It is only through maintaining a democratic grassroots movement which remains independent of any single political party that we can ensure an environment where genuinely inclusive discussion can take place in order to work out the best way forward. The real danger to any future campaign for independence is that it forgets what generated such enthusiasm the first time around.

It was the radicalism and diversity of grassroots organisations which provided many people with a reason to vote. It would be a mistake to assume these votes can be taken for granted and simply focus on reassuring those who voted against independence in 2014. The way to success in any future referendum is to once again create the feeling that another Scotland is possible. Scottish independence can only be achieved with the mass participation of those outwith the narrow paradigm of mainstream politics, and will once again require a strong independent force for radicalism at the heart of the movement.

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