Saturday sees the second Radical Independence Conference (RIC) in Glasgow, bringing together practically the entire Scottish left outside the Labour party.
If Scotland votes Yes next September, RIC will be one of the few sources of new ideas to transform the nation. If we vote for the status quo, RIC could become a pole of attraction for disgruntled SNP activists.
Labour’s relentless move to the right should have opened up a space to its left for an anti-capitalist or, at least, stridently anti-austerity political force with popular resonance. Across Europe, the economic crisis has stimulated the rise of anti-austerity movements well to the left of the mainstream socialist parties that have embraced budget cuts.
In France, the Left Front, an alliance of communists and far leftists, won 11 per cent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election. In September’s German parliamentary elections, Die Linke, which grew out of the old East German Communist party, won 64 seats. In Europe’s smaller nations, the radical left has done even better. In the 2012 Greek election, the Syriza group won 27 per cent of the popular vote, outpolling the mainstream socialists who got only 12 per cent.
The UK is the exception to this pattern. Unlike in the rest of Europe, Britain’s anti-capitalist left has failed miserably to create a unified movement that could act as a mass pole of attraction during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Instead, it is the rightwing, anti-immigration Ukip that could come top of the poll in next year’s European elections.
The far left has only itself to blame, especially as the Labour Party has been haemorrhaging electoral support. Recent attempts at left unity in Britain have ended in political bloodbaths reminiscent of the last scene in Hamlet. Witness the implosion of the Scottish Socialist Party over the Tommy Sheridan libel case, and the break-up of the Respect group in England when the demagogic George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) fell out big time. Since then the SWP has fragmented after it grievously mishandled allegations of rape against a senior party figure.
Why is the British anti-capitalist left so amateurish? There are reasons apart from its fixation with demagogic male leaders. One is that the left is trapped in an unreformed British state – a stagnant political culture weighed down with centuries of conformist ideological muck and subservience. Result: the left has no experience of revolutionary practice and prefers talking to doing.
Hence the opposition to Scottish independence in some left-wing quarters because it “threatens the unity of the British working class”. Translation: we prefer the abstract “unity” of Britain, where much of the English working class votes Tory or Ukip, to a practical demonstration of change in Scotland that actually improves the lot of the poor.
It’s different across the Channel. Since the Second World War, practically every nation in continental Europe has seen popular bourgeois democratic and left-wing movements overthrow fascist or military dictatorships in order to create modern states. Revolution is the norm in Europe in the last 50 years. Not so in the “ancient regime” that is Great Britain, where the pace of reform is glacial and even the SNP thinks twice about challenging the monarchy.
Which brings us to Saturday’s RIC. Last year’s seminal RIC did much to heal the wounds of the Tommy Sheridan debacle. It has also served as a non-sectarian platform bringing together the traditional far left, a host of Scotland’s best-known intellectuals, the anti-Nato wing of the SNP, plus a new generation of articulate young activists who are disenchanted with the mainstream parties.
The test for RIC 2013 is twofold. First: to give this nascent political coalition a reason to transform itself into a popular movement rather than a debating society. Second: to forge a programme that is effective rather than ideologically pure.
The problem is that the anti-capitalist left in Scotland is still engagingly utopian. I do not mean that as an epithet. A small nation of five million people cannot build socialism in one country in a capitalist world of 6 billion – or you get the chaos that is Venezuela. The question RIC needs to face up to is: how do you meaningfully transform Scottish society within the economic boundaries imposed by global capitalism? Saturday’s conference will be tempted to avoid that tough choice.
Instead, the left needs a new approach. Here are my suggestions:
• A break on the runaway capitalist growth machine can only succeed at a global level. That implies a new strategy of reforming global institutions or creating new ones. For starters, independent Scotland should use its newfound freedom to revive the idea of a “Europe of the Nations and Regions” – a project killed off in the 1990s by the big European powers.
l Demanding ideological perfection is always the enemy of real change. Here I’m not advocating piecemeal reform – I’m advocating experimentation, and the bolder the better. For instance, instead of thinking we can de-carbonise the Scottish economy quickly or cheaply, let’s experiment. Why not create a whole town (or major suburb) that is completely de-carbonised and self-sufficient. That is doable financially and in short order. It would be a beacon of innovation.
• Let’s democratise where we can, starting by transferring as much power from Holyrood to our municipalities. Towns and cities are better at solving problems than national governments. The problem in Scotland is not too many local councils, but too few.
• Finally, challenging capitalism is fundamentally about challenging the ownership and investment pattern of capital. That’s why an independent Scottish state must own a sizeable investment bank and possess its own national currency, if it is to have any freedom of action.
RIC is the wild card in next year’s referendum. If the anti-austerity left can convince Scotland’s young people that independence means genuine change, all political bets are off. But can the left leave its comfort zone of being in eternal opposition, and actually seek power?