The last of the light had faded several hours before in Easterhouse, a deprived estate on Glasgow’s east side. In the car park of Shandwick Square shopping centre, the illumination came from the golden arches of a McDonald’s and a house-sized projection simply reading “Yes”. A girl of about 12 gave out pink stickers that also just said “Yes”. Her mother kept an eye on her, while distributing bundles of campaign literature to the 45 canvassers assembled for the evening’s work.
They were members of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), a non-party aligned group seeking a Yes vote in Scotland’s independence referendum on 18 September. Despite the often acrimonious debate between the main campaigns — the pro-independence Yes Scotland and the unionist Better Together — RIC were launching the big push in their unashamedly socialist pitch for the hearts, minds and votes of the Scottish people.
For 80 years the Scottish National Party (SNP) has called for independence from the United Kingdom; for many of the last 24 of those years the party has been led by Alex Salmond. On winning an unprecedented majority in Scotland’s devolved parliament in 2011, the SNP secured a national referendum: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The SNP’s vision for an independent country is based on “civic nationalism”, ostensibly progressive, inclusive and decentralising; it cannot be characterised by the insidious tropes often associated with nationalism.
In the early 1980s a faction of the party known as the 79 Group — a youthful Salmond was a leader — was “important in moving the SNP at least avowedly in a more social-democratic direction,” says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. “In truth their record in government by that criterion can certainly be challenged.” And it is this failure that RIC, started in 2012, seeks to address. Co-founder Jonathon Shafi says: “It’s not just an attempt to win a Yes vote, but an attempt to re-engage with a whole series of communities, right up and down Scotland, who for too long have been ignored by mainstream politics. We believe that for Scotland, a Yes vote, is about more than a changing of the flags. We want a Yes vote to be married with a programme for radical social change.”
The left united
The Radical Independence Campaign is the brainchild of the International Socialist Group, and has united campaigners from Scotland’s often fractious leftwing groups. A measure of its success was seen when its 2013 conference drew nearly 1,000 people (the SNP’s 2013 conference had 1,300 delegates).
In Easterhouse, the canvassers held a banner aloft for press photographers, saying “Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours”. A man shouted from their ranks: “You’re looking at the dangerous and appalling mob now!” Unionist politicians have criticised the group for being too radical — even revolutionary: many in the movement think that’s a compliment. “We are dangerous, because we’re dangerous to their campaign,” says Liam McLaughlan, 17, who grew up in Easterhouse. “Because they know that what we’re doing here will work. It will get people out voting Yes, and then we can start actually going about making a special society here in Scotland.”
Capitalising (using the word in its least cynical sense) on the emotions of those who have fared worst out of three decades of neoliberalism is a key part of the group’s tactics. Nicky Patterson is a veteran campaigner with the Green Party. As people set out in small groups toward the sprawling estate, he tutored the less experienced canvassers: “You want to articulate that Westminster isn’t working for us, it’s not working for working-class people.” He talked of these doorstep pitches as a “journey”, facts being less important than leading potential voters through the narrative: to appreciating the failings of the current system of government — privatisation, job scarcity, cuts to welfare, the failed economy — and to seeing independence as a solution.
The persuasiveness of this argument prompted many first-time activists to come along. A 20-something barmaid had been planning on voting No, but changed her mind after discovering that 1,200 sick people had died when the (Westminster) government had them declared fit to work and revoked their social security. “I kind of felt that I’ve got blood on my hands if I stay in a union that is basically saying that that’s OK, to treat the sick that way. It used to be that the working class were the people that got persecuted, but now it’s the poor, it’s the sick, it’s the elderly, the infirm. Everyone’s getting it from all angles. I want better for my country.”
In Easterhouse’s rows of shoebox houses, tourist Scotland is soon forgotten. This is concrete Scotland. Easterhouse is among the most deprived 5% of areas in the UK, with the lowest life expectancy, just 71. RIC believes that a Yes vote will be secured by marshalling support in these working-class neighbourhoods. “If we can get people involved from areas like this, which suffer high deprivation, high unemployment,” says McLaughlan, “if we can get these people not only out voting, but voting Yes, this is where the game-changer lies.”
‘People are going to vote’
These neighbourhoods are being targeted with good reason. Polling by the TNS-BMRB group shows that 13% more people in the manual and unskilled DE socio-economic group are planning on voting Yes than in the affluent AB group. Yet RIC fears that low voter registration may prove an obstacle — and getting people to the ballot box is a key objective.
But while Curtice accepts that registration tends to be low among people with high unemployment, he qualifies it: “The thing to say about this referendum is people are going to vote. It’s getting very, very high levels of interest and there’s no problem with mobilisation in any section of Scottish society.”
The polls resolutely show Scotland leaning towards a No vote. A YouGov survey in February showed 35% in favour of and 53% against independence.
If successful, could RIC’s tactic of mobilising the working class be sufficient to turn the tables? Not on its own, according to Curtice: “It’s true that people who are in routine occupations or live in places which are relatively socially deprived are somewhat more likely to say they’re going to vote Yes in the referendum, so certainly it’s a target group for the Yes side … But they’re not going to win the referendum on the basis of that section of the population alone. It’s sheer statistics: there aren’t enough of them.”
Still, spirits were high among the team when they asked residents on Drumlanrig Avenue to rate their enthusiasm for independence on a scale of one to 10. A few residents didn’t want to be disturbed but most had clearly considered the issues. Their responses confirmed the suspicion that the decision will ultimately be decided by economics. The first house was a Yes — despite concerns over what currency an independent Scotland might use. The second was a No — put off by the fear that North Sea oil, the wealth so many SNP promises rely upon, will soon run out. A middle-aged man from the third said he used to be a member of the SNP. He was a firm Yes — but worried about Salmond’s immigration policy: “He gets the jobs first, that’s fine. Then you bring the folk over.”
‘They promise the world’
Another woman claimed Salmond had visited her house on a previous canvassing expedition: “He was just like all politicians and members of all parties. They promise the world, they say we’ll do this and we’ll do that, we’ll do the next thing. And it never materialises.” She still favoured independence, but “it will never happen.”
The final result of RIC’s on-the-spot polling showed a tendency for deprived areas to be more in favour — 50% backing independence, 16% against and 34% not yet decided.
The final house revealed one of the most significant threats the independence campaign faces — Scotland’s historic loyalty to the pro-union Labour Party. A couple answered the door and Patterson asked whether they would be voting in the referendum. The man firmly said he wouldn’t be voting for independence, but wouldn’t be drawn on why he was opposed. “What he’s not telling you is, I’m a Labour councillor,” the woman said, before introducing herself as Maureen Burke. Enjoying the chance to grill a politician, Patterson suggested it was close-minded to oppose independence without offering a reason. “All we need is a Labour government,” said Burke. “You can be close-minded if you’ve made up your mind. You’ve made up your mind. Where do you stay? I’ll come and try and convert you onto our side.”
Labour was until recently a monolithic political force across much of Scotland — the old joke was that a monkey with a red rosette would secure a comfortable majority in Glasgow. While Labour’s grip has slipped, being pushed into opposition in 2011, tribal loyalties run deep. In the 2012 council elections, Labour candidates gained 64% of first-preference votes in this ward, as opposed to the SNP’s 30%. It is often said that — besides independence — little distinction can be drawn between the rivals. The Labour Party’s vocal support for staying in the UK, based partly on the fear that its representation in Westminster would be irrevocably damaged by independence, alleviates some of the discomfort Scottish social democrats might feel supporting a union advocated by the Conservative Party in London.
Much of the pro-independence movement’s rhetoric is aimed at breaking down this loyalty: “There’s only one false dream, and that is that voting No, and then voting Labour is going to change anything,” says Shafi. “Both of those things are not going to change anything. All that’s going to happen is we’ll continue on the same downward trajectory, economically and politically.”
But Curtice highlights a more pressing concern for the independence movement, even more worrying for a branch of that movement that identifies itself as radical left: “It’s not entirely clear that people think an independent Scotland will be a more equal society, that it makes much difference to whether they’re going to vote Yes or No, or indeed not a great deal of evidence that Scotland is wildly more leftwing than England. It’s one of those things that many people in Scotland like to believe about their country. But actually the evidence for the proposition is much weaker than they often realise.”
As far as McLaughlan is concerned, whether Scotland is ready for the revolution or not, becomes an independent country or remains part of the union, RIC will endure. “We’re not going to get to 19 September and disappear. We’re here for the long run.”