The Radical Independence Campaign wants to hold the SNP to account. Who are they kidding? asks Paul Demarty
It was a good - or at least, a loud - weekend for the massed forces of Scottish nationalism.
The main event was at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro arena - the sponsorship being appropriate, given the petro-centric visions of Scots independence on offer from the nationalists - where the new first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed a crowd of 12,000. Identified as on the more social democratic wing of the Scottish National Party, Sturgeon spoke in the non-specifically radical terms that have become the dominant theme of the SNP:
Democracy won the referendum. And so did Scotland. The people took control of our future and they do not want to give it back. The desire to see positive change and social justice now burns across this country.
Well might she be so ebullient. “Nowhere,” she continued, “is that growth in confidence, that desire for change, reflected more than in the membership of our party.” The SNP now numbers around 90,000 - that is three times its size in September, and nearly half the membership total of the Labour Party across Britain, with a pool of potential recruits a 10th of the size. It works out at roughly one SNP member in every 50 adults in Scotland - in our age of hollowed-out political parties, a remarkable figure.
It is hardly surprising - the nationalists’ referendum defeat was only a defeat inasmuch as divorce proceedings are not presently underway. It was not even the tight margin that emboldened them so much as the almost comical disarray in the unionist camp. This was seen both in those last squeaky-bum weeks before the poll and in the boiling over of tensions - Cameron’s ‘rediscovery’ of the West Lothian question and the collapse of Scottish Labour - that followed afterwards.
As things stand, the SNP is on course to deliver a grievous whipping to Labour next year, denuding it of a majority of its Scottish contingent it can ill do without in Westminster; a new referendum may not follow the year after, but any SNP leader can be forgiven for anticipating that a second vote will be unavoidable in not too much time. In any case, a few dozen SNP MPs can hardly hurt, as the unionist parties squabble over the meaning of devolution in the coming period.
Such is the view from the SNP - of which I profess a certain sneaking admiration: a ruthlessly pragmatic party, which can nevertheless turn on the romance of national brotherhood to obvious effect. This is a deeply reactionary combination, naturally, but at least it is executed competently by its leaders - unlike David Cameron, a jumped-up wonk in perpetual disorganised defeat from his own right wing; and Ed Miliband, the living incarnation of the old adage: ‘If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb.’
The same cannot be said of SNP’s diseased camp-followers on the left. Not too far from the Hydro arena, at the Clyde Auditorium, 3,000 people attended the Radical Independence Campaign’s parallel rally. The RIC has emerged as the centre of the nationalist left (with some friendly competition from a somewhat revived Scottish Socialist Party); founded by Chris Bambery’s International Socialist Group (one of many splits from the Socialist Workers Party in recent years), RIC seems to have outlived its progenitor, which at this point appears all but defunct, and is under the control of different political forces.
On the face of it, this conference was a success. With attendance massively up on last year’s event, it saw a diversity of speakers that would make John Rees boil with envy: leftwing SNP members, Greens and figures of the Scottish far left made the usual tub-thumping speeches.
As with Rees’s wheezes south of the border, however, the more dispassionate observer cannot but wonder what exactly it is all for. The answer depends very much on who you ask: Green speakers talked of the need to hold the SNP to account, since, with Scottish Labour bloodied and broken, it is looking forward to a period - however brief - when there are no serious challenges to its power in Holyrood. On the other hand, SNP lefts such as Aamer Anwar would no doubt take a different view.
The million-Scottish-pound question is: how are RIC supporters supposed to vote come next year (and after)? Voting is not everything, of course, but it is a decent enough proxy for the range of political choices available to supporters of a given political movement. RIC seems to bring to Scottish nationalism the same paralysis that the People’s Assembly presents in the anti-austerity movement: the latter pulls pro-Labour trade union leaders into the same tent as Greens and far-left hopefuls; simply substitute the SNP for Labour, and you have the (even more wretched) choice on offer to left nationalists. By its very nature, RIC is unable to offer a serious recommendation.
Quite apart from which: even the fragments of the far left are divided on the question. Having collapsed entirely into fatuous nationalism, many (notably Tommy Sheridan) have drawn the logical conclusion of recommending an SNP vote to maximise the chance of achieving independence. Others hold back from that: some remnants of the far left still twitch at the idea of offering support to bourgeois parties. A Socialist Worker report, sanguine by that journal’s breathless standards, concludes not unreasonably: “… sadly the prospect of a unified left seems as distant as it was directly after the referendum”.1
In place of a practical lead, RIC has only platitudes. Emblematic of these is the ‘People’s Vow’, launched by Cat Boyd at the conference.2 Intended as a left-nationalist retort to the Westminster parties’ ‘Vow to Scotland’ - more devolution, more power and so on - it consists of (what else?) pugnacious rhetoric coupled to a series of right-on banalities.
“We can rattle the brittle bones of the British state,” Boyd said. “We have changed politics forever - and the centre of power at Westminster cannot and will not hold.” One must dispute the rattling potential of this vow. First of all, “we will prepare a people’s budget to demand that Scottish public services are protected from any cuts.” Specifics, as ever, are lacking: as is any serious suggestion that Scotland is well placed, alone, to protect its people from the full force of international financial markets.
“Secondly, we will not let anyone sell off our natural resources to the highest bidder. We demand that the Scottish government use planning laws to stop fracking.” Very nice, comrade: we can’t help but notice, however, that there is no mention of oil here. Shale gas is easy enough to sacrifice for the fair-weather eco-warrior, but North Sea crude is rather awkward when it comes to current Scottish finances (it is also dirtier to burn than gas).
“Third, we will hold a demonstration for radical land reform and demand an end to Scotland’s feudal legacy.” Here, we get a little off-piste - land reform is a rarer dish on the leftwing menu than it was a century ago. Even now, however, we have only an ill-defined assurance that “our land will support our goals of sustainability and social justice”; not that it would be, say, nationalised.
The fourth demand is for a reversal of “inequalities between women and men: any politician who fails to take this seriously will be punished”: fair enough, but in place (again) of serious measures to redress the issue, we have the eye-wateringly dismal promise that “our better Scotland will abandon the macho political culture of Westminster and the machismo so engrained in the city of London”. This is something so wet and pointless that Harriet Harman could sign up to it: it is also guaranteed to provoke mirthless laughter among anyone who has tangled with the malignant foot soldiers of Scottish left nationalism on the internet in the last decade. A more macho, anti-intellectual culture of political bear-baiting would be difficult to invent if one tried.
The final demand follows the same pattern - an anti-Trident statement, which mutters about Nato using Scotland as a “dumping ground” for nukes, without actually questioning Scottish membership of Nato. Thus it is exactly as radical as … Nicola Sturgeon, who promised last week to support a Miliband premiership in return for an anti-Trident commitment.
All of which begs, again, the question: what is RIC for? Whatever participants may think, no role is possible for them other than bag-carriers for more significant nationalist forces. The SNP has been posing left for years - indeed, on and off for decades; RIC presents no politics different in substance from what is on offer from the official Nats. The policies may be presented in a more breathless way, but it is the SNP that benefits from the soapbox heroics; Alex Salmond’s evident Atlanticism, Europhilia and chumminess with Rupert Murdoch were embarrassing for the Scots left (it is too early to see if Sturgeon represents a change here, but we doubt it), but not so embarrassing that it distracted them from the key goal this summer and autumn - nor will it henceforth.
That goal is independence, which yields all serious agency to the nationalists proper. If the bones of the British state are indeed rattled to breaking point, historians will devote chapters to Salmond and Sturgeon, and the odd footnote to RIC - a historical redundancy, and the suicide note of the Scottish left.
1. Socialist Worker November 25.