Gregor Gall: Yes campaign must unite people around a cause

The poll tax protests are a useful benchmark for any campaign in terms of its degree of connection with citizens. Picture: Hamish Campbell
The poll tax protests are a useful benchmark for any campaign in terms of its degree of connection with citizens. Picture: Hamish Campbell
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YOU probably do not know it, but the Yes Scotland independence campaign is currently playing the strongest of all its cards: social justice.

In response to the scoping document of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) called A Just Scotland in November 2012, Yes Scotland launched its Yes to a Just Scotland document last month.

Since its launch in May, Yes Scotland has focused on giving certain periods a particular emphasis. First, there was the democratic pitch that people in Scotland are the best-placed to make the decisions that affect what goes on in the country. Before the referendum, there will be the green pitch about independence being the best way to protect the environment.

But, until now, it seemed that Yes Scotland was not firing on all cylinders as it had not made its main pitch to citizens of promising better standards of living by protecting them from the ravages of the increasingly unregulated market.

Now that it has, gaps, holes and weaknesses can be picked in Yes Scotland’s case. Indeed, the STUC was right to highlight that by far the key weakness in Yes Scotland’s thinking concerns how the finance will be raised to pay for its version of a socialised market economy. The issue of a progressive system of taxation was ducked.

Notwithstanding this pertinent criticism, it would be easy for supporters of independence to rest a bit on their laurels because at least – and at last – Yes Scotland has made the social justice case for independence. But, alas, they would be entirely wrong because there is a far bigger challenge. The ideas, embodied in Yes to a Just Scotland are necessary to win the referendum in 2014, but they are very far from being sufficient to doing so.

You might then expect a litany of extra demands to be put forward from me, along the lines of Yes Scotland must be more radical on this aspect and must be more left-wing on that aspect. But that would be to entirely miss the key point.

Any ideas must have purchase and traction with a mass of citizens to be worth their salt. This, fundamentally, means that they must relate to the material (or economic) grievances of citizens and offer them a constructive and productive resolution.

The trouble with Yes to a Just Scotland is that they are just ideas, and fairly general ones at that. They are not yet policies, much less campaigns or actions. And this gets to the heart of the matter of explaining why not only will most people not know of Yes Scotland’s Yes to a Just Scotland, but also why they will be unmoved and unconvinced by it if even if they did.

The way to square the circle is to take the raft of new as well as long-standing popular material grievances and show not only how the social justice case for independence potentially resolves them but also how they can be resolved in the here and now through collective action – and not just words.

This approach is vital for two reasons. First, the grievances are manifestly current ones and no amount of promising manna from heaven after 2014 (or more likely 2016 when the first post-independence Scottish Parliament elections could take place) will give mass traction for the chosen ideas. Second, a bridge between now and post-2014 must be built to show that the pursuit of social justice is not some pie-in-the-sky idea, but rather that it offers fairly immediate solutions to existing problems. The key point here is that to gain traction, the social justice case for independence must be based around where most citizens are at in their material concerns.

There are potentially no shortage of issues to work and campaign around, be they the “bedroom tax”, the extent and scourge of unemployment, benefit cuts, the activity of Atos (the company at the heart of the Paralympics disability tests row), corporate tax avoidance, lack of availability of adequate housing, mass redundancies, the deregulation of the banking system, low pay, long working hours, and environmental destruction. Indeed, the risk is that the list is too long and trying to work around all of the issues means that none will receive sufficient attention to gain critical mass. But events in the recent past on all of these issues, with presumably more to come, provide the opportunity and spaces for Yes Scotland to establish campaigns – or at least be involved in campaigns – that attempt to resolve the grievances in favour of the majority of citizens.

Of all of them, the “bedroom tax” is the one that offers the most potential. As its implementation date approaches, it is becoming a political “hot potato” and, crucially, protests against it have already begun. It may only affect a certain stratum in society, but for others who are not affected directly by it will easily to see just how pernicious it is. It is a campaigning opportunity too good to be passed up.

Putting campaigning against the bedroom tax together with that against a few other choice issues (from the list above) could start to create a coalition of collective campaigns that begin to lay out in the here and now the living foundations of the social justice case for independence.

The anti-poll tax campaign of more than 20 years ago is always a useful benchmark for any campaign in terms of its degree of connection with citizens, how the organisation of the revolt became embedded in people’s local communities and how these local campaigns then came together to form a national campaign.

It is only by taking such a campaigning approach to the issues that move people that the Yes Scotland can then answer the key question that will be in countless citizens’ minds, namely: “Can you give me a compelling reason to vote for independence?’

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and a resident of Edinburgh