Creating the future on the road to Scottish independence

  • September 12, 2014

Borders & Beyond

Autonomous social movements involved with the campaign for Scottish independence have a chance of permanently changing Scotland’s political landscape.

For the last few weeks, the UK has been consumed with one single question: will Scotland become an independent country? While those outside the UK might not have been as unavoidably aware of this — and while those in England, the political class in particular, seem only now to be waking up to the prospect — for everyone in Scotland it has been a long and eventful two years since the Scottish National Party (SNP), the ruling party in the semi-autonomous Scottish Parliament, announced the date of the referendum. On September 18, Scotland will go to the polls and vote on whether to leave the UK.

While the independence issue has always been closely linked to left-wing politics in Scotland (the Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, along with others, have always been pro-independence, and the SNP could be called a center-left social democratic party), it may seem odd to those on the outside that radicals would be passionately involved in this debate. But as is the case in Catalonia and the Basque Country, nationalism has taken a different form in Scotland than it has in other European countries in the last century, and has indeed been likened more to a national liberation struggle than a form of right-wing conservatism.

In Scotland, the radical left has almost completely lined up behind the pro-independence banner and has spent the last two years, if not longer, campaigning on making the case that independence is the only way to realize radical left goals in Scotland and that the breakup of the UK could only be a good thing from a left-wing perspective (Niki Seth-Smith set out some of the reasons why in an article for Novara Media earlier this year, while George Monbiot recently pointed out the link between traditional working class values and independence). But this is not to say that the radical left in Scotland has supported without question the SNP and their campaign and vision for independence.

In the last week the polls showed for the first time a majority in favor of independence by as much as 53 per cent to 47 per cent. The campaign against independence led by the three big parties in UK politics and supported by the government in Westminster have proposed a series of reforms that would, in theory, give more autonomy to the Scottish Parliament while keeping it in the UK. Seen by many as a cynical attempt to turn the polls in their favor, this type of politics — of offering gifts to the Scottish people from London — is symptomatic not only of the way in which the Westminster parties (more on them later) have approached the entire campaign, but also of how little they understand of how radical the pro-independence movement has become over the last two years.

Here, I want to make use of social movement theory to help explain the current state of the pro-independence movement while showing just how opposed the approach of the anti-independence campaign is to the political reality in Scotland. In the last week before the referendum, understanding — or failing to understand — this difference could mean nothing less than failure for the anti-independence campaign and the beginning of the end for the UK as we know it.

Contemporary Social Movement Theory

Contemporary social movement studies is, like most academic disciplines, a divided church. On the one hand there are scholars examining social movements on the basis of either how they mobilise and expend material and immaterial resources and how this relates to the success or otherwise of those movements, i.e. the resource mobilisation tradition. The other branch looks at how social movements are configured hierarchically and the extent to which embodying goals in current practices is taken as a mark of success, i.e. the new social movements tradition.

While the resource mobilisation tradition can tell us important things about how movements are organised and operate, the new social movements approach is seen by its proponents as more suitable for the ways in which social movements have thought and acted since the 1960s. There are two reason why this is the case and why new social movement theory is so appealing.

Firstly, focusing on leadership and hierarchy in social movements is crucial as contemporary movements are focussed strongly on varying degrees of less-hierarchical organisation; less hierarchical than the parties and union-dominated movements that were most successful in the past, that is. Horizontalism and direct democracy have been hallmarks of grass-roots movements for at least the last two decades.

Secondly, contemporary social movements are seen to be prefigurative in the sense that they try to enact the goals of their movements in the here and now, rather than putting these goals off until some unspecified future date. This insistence that goals be realised in the present is often taken to mean a certain level of consistency and, as Ghandi put it, being the change you want to see in the world. It also involves a constant reappraisal of ultimate goals in light of current practices and experiences, bringing in an element of experimentation to how social movements work. Prefiguration then speaks to a relationship between means and ends that goes both ways: goals must be embodied in means and at the same time means involve reassessing and negotiating goals.

Another classic formulation of prefiguration is in the anarchist claim that a free society cannot be reached through authoritarian means but must exist in the processes movements use to reach it. This was one of the earliest disagreements between anarchists, represented by Mikhail Bakunin, and state socialists, represent by Karl Marx, at the first international. The anarchists rejected the Marxist approach of bringing a free, socialist society into being by capturing and using state power. Anarchists instead tried to create federations of communes defined by voluntary democratic practices. This has of course come to define the ways in which contemporary radical social movements, like Occupy and the Indignados, are organised.

New social movement studies is useful in precisely this: analysing and understanding contemporary movements and the ways in which they enact prefigurative and anti-hierarchical practices. Some of the best scholarly work on the alterglobalisation movement, the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico and the Occupy, Arab Spring and the Indignados movements has been in this tradition.

It also helps to shed light on the differences between the two campaigns involved in the Scottish independence referendum: the Yes and the No campaigns. What a new social movement studies approach allows us to see is the stark contrasts that have come to define not only these campaigns but also the forms of politics present in each, and crucially the form of Scottish political and cultural life to come. It is on the questions of hierarchy and prefiguration that these factors come to the fore.

The campaign for Scottish independence

The campaign for Scottish independence, the Yes campaign, is officially represented by Yes Scotland— ostensibly a broad coalition but in practice run by the Scottish National Party. Yes Scotland has set out its goals for an independent Scotland in the ‘Scotland’s Future’ document, and Scotland becoming an independent state and nation on the world stage is an obvious prerequisite for achieving these goals.

The goals, often reflective of the centre-left social democratic consensus in mainstream Scottish politics, involve using the mechanisms of the state to enact certain policies that will improve the lives of the people living in Scotland (e.g. free education and healthcare, a more humane immigration system, an end to austerity) as well as those elsewhere in the world (e.g. the removal of Trident nuclear missiles from Scottish waters and reducing the ability of the British armed forces to wage wars abroad). The means used to achieve these goals, such as setting up an independent parliamentary democracy, are not synonymous with the goals of a social justice-oriented and anti-militarist society. Plenty of states have parliaments independent of the UK but not all are left-leaning and reject militarism.

Yes Scotland, in these respects is clearly an example of the kind of politics that new social movements theorists characterise as being typical of pre-1960s movements which were controlled from above by parties and trade unions.

The campaign against independence, the No campaign or Better Together is organised in much the same way. It is led by a coalition of the Labour Party, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats (odd bed-fellows or a typical reflection of the true nature of Westminster interest politics, depending on who you ask) and aims at their stated goals, apparently now more powers for the Scottish parliament, by asking people to vote against independence: ‘vote for less powers and you’ll get more powers, not through your own initiative but as gifts from the seat of power in London’. Odd as this is, it does embody the same non-prefigurative political approach as the Yes Scotland campaign. The goals will be achieved by methods which explicitly contradict those goals.

Thankfully, for social movement theorists wanting a little more to say on the subject and, more importantly, for those activists on the ground suspicious of or simply not motivated by this form of political campaigning, the story goes much further. At least it does for one side of the campaigns around independence.

The Yes campaign, whatever the SNP and Better Together would have you believe, is not reducible to Yes Scotland. While Yes Scotland more or less failed at creating the broad coalition they hoped for, a much wider social movement for Scottish independence did emerge. This hasn’t been characterised by a unified leadership or a single policy programme but by a multitude of independent groupings across the country operating autonomously of both Yes Scotland and one another.

Groups like Women for Independence, National Collective, the Radical Independence Campaign, YES LGBT, the Green Party, the Scottish Socialist Party and more have been hitting the streets campaigning in the usual way – delivering leaflets, knocking on doors, holding information stalls – but also actively creating the vision of an independent Scotland they see as necessary.

Women for Independence have succeeded not only in putting women centre-stage in the campaign for independence but also in creating spaces for women to self-organise in politically confident ways. National Collective have not only raised the concerns of Scotland’s creative community but have also contributed to a renewal of the country’s cultural life.

In these ways and more, groups like these have been involved in prefiguring the independence they campaign for, and all without any coordinated leadership; in fact often in explicit rejection of any such centralised leadership and certainly the centralised leadership of the SNP. The prefigurative edge to this radical movement for independence is seen clearly in quotation from Abraham Lincoln now seen on the streets of Scotland: ‘The best way to predict your future is to create it’.

Prefiguration and critical support for independence

Richard Gunn, political theorist and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh from 1975 to 2011, recently commented that a vote for Yes in the independence referendum should be a vote for ‘Yes, but…’ Interestingly, this is precisely what these groups have contributed to in the independence campaign: a vision of independence that goes beyond that of the official Yes Scotland campaign and which has embodied this vision in their actions.

Scottish author and libertarian socialist James Kelman summed this up nicely in arguing that support for independence is not synonymous with support for the SNP: ‘Sooner or later the right to self-determination will be exercised by the majority people in my country. When I vote ‘yes’ to independence I shall be voting towards that end.’

In contrast to this image of an autonomous, pro-independence social movement which rejects hierarchical leadership and prefigures independence, the No campaign seems utterly reducible to Better Together, an organisation which has been run in a top-down way and which has done none of the autonomous, prefigurative action that has come to define the wider Yes movement.

While the Yes campaign has been about individual groups operating on their own initiative and in their own areas, both in terms of interest and locality, the No campaign has seen the thrust coming from official announcements and tours, largely run by the Labour Party, both Scottish and London-based. Indeed, the campaign has been driven by the party leaders in London and coordinated by advertising agencies like Blue State Digital, a subsidiary of the tax-avoiding WPP plc.

Emblematic of this is the approach of the three big parties in the UK in these last days before the referendum. The response to the surge of support for a Yes vote has been met with offers of minor policy changes by former Labour Party leader Gordon Brown and the three parties’ current leaders heading to Scotland to help campaign.

This is seen by many in Scotland as nothing but a publicity stunt that underestimates the grass-roots opposition not only to a No vote but to the top-down style of politics that is par for the course in Westminster. As Lesley Riddoch has noted, ‘the unscrutinised, top-down nature of [Gordon] Brown’s intervention visibly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Westminster rule’.  Better Together has seen nothing like an autonomous social movement on their side of the debate, and it will struggle to find an audience for its message as a result.

By focussing on the questions of hierarchy and prefiguration, a social movement studies account of the campaigns around independence can contribute to understanding these changes in Scottish society. Academics should of course be cautious about what such things could mean for Scotland.

In the increasingly likely event of a Yes vote on September 18, the pro-independence social movement could assert itself in an independent Scotland and continue to prefigure multiple visions of a better society, resulting in perhaps the most important renewal of Scottish cultural life and civil society in at least a generation.

Should independence be rejected, this broad movement is unlikely to disappear. Come what may, the referendum has already changed the political landscape in Scotland and the emergence of the pro-independence social movement is indicative of the fact that this change involves a rejection of the top-down approach that continues to define much of mainstream politics.

So while Euan McColl, writing in the Scotsman newspaper, argues that those on the radical left expecting a lurch to the left from the SNP are mistaken, he misses the entire raison d’être of these autonomous elements of the Yes campaign. They expect little from the SNP, perhaps even nothing more than independence alone. Instead they aim to, and are currently succeeding in, prefiguring an independence that goes far beyond the SNP’s plans and, in the words of the Radical Independence Campaign, are proving that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’.

Thomas Swann

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics.

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