Our Growing Movement
Originally posted on the RIC Aberdeen blog. Speech from the Radical Independence Conference 2014.
This is an amazing sight. I’d like you to just take a moment and look around. Make some eye contact. Did you ever think you’d have so many comrades? It’s easy to feel alone when you’re challenging the status quo. But right here, in this room, there are thousands of people who are fighting on the same side.
Every single person in this room has their own story and their own vision for the Scotland they want to see. Some people here have been activists for decades, some have just joined the struggle. Some people here call themselves socialists, feminists, anarchists, greens. Some of us don’t use labels at all. What unites us is the desire for a better Scotland and a better world.
So you’ll have noticed this isn’t an Aberdeen accent. Why on Earth is an American speaking at a Scottish Radical Independence conference?
I can tell you it’s not what I expected last year when I was out knocking doors and organising public meetings. And it’s definitely not what I expected fourteen years ago, when I was an exchange student struggling with culture shock.
I did a year abroad because I wanted to see how people lived in other countries. I chose Scotland because I like the music here. I had no idea the Scottish Parliament had just been established, but during that year there was a buzz about what might be achieved. Here was something the people had demanded – and won.
Back in the US, George W Bush lost the popular vote but still became President. Scotland wasn’t perfect, but it seemed like a country with its sanity intact. Public healthcare. Statutory maternity leave. No guns.
Maybe it was the weight of the contrast that got me thinking about words like capitalism, oppression, social justice. I went to my first big demo, a blockade at Faslane. I learned about the Zapatistas, the WTO, consensus organising.
My first year in Scotland radicalised me. I’m lucky they let me back in the US.
When I got home I was excited about my new calling in life. “I’m an activist now,” I told a friend. He laughed and said, “Myshele, you’ve always been an activist.”
Did you ever have a moment like that? When you suddenly realised something obvious about yourself?
I think the referendum sparked a lot of those moments. People who cared about what happened to their neighbours suddenly realised they were political. People who wanted to help others suddenly realised they were activists. People who thought we should maybe be nice to each other suddenly realised they were radicals.
I don’t think it’s particularly radical, what we’re talking about here. Let’s not kill each other. Let’s not dump poisons into our air and water. Let’s share our resources and try to make sure everyone has a decent, dignified life.
How fucked up is our current system that it requires radical change just to meet the standards of basic human values?
I’m taking the Life in the UK test next week, so I can apply for permanent residence. According to the study guide, everyone in the UK should ‘treat others with fairness.’ I guess the Tories never read the book.
After my year abroad I was overwhelmed with the scale of America’s problems. In a country of 350 million people, where do you even start? It felt like America was too big and too broken for one person to make a difference.
So I came back to Scotland, and I’ve worked hard to be able to stay here. I don’t have Scottish ancestry but this is where I want my future to be.
At its heart, this kind of question is exactly what the referendum was all about. Beyond questions of constitutional change and party politics, it was an opportunity for the people of Scotland to think about who we are and what kind of future we want.
And look what happened when people got the chance to imagine a different future. They started asking questions about what’s happening right now, started pulling back the curtain. No rhetoric required, just hard facts – but facts are dangerous.
Poll after poll showed that when people got away from the lies of the mainstream media and started to get informed, they became disillusioned with the status quo, because the status quo is not good enough.
We live in one of the richest countries in the world, but thousands of families rely on food banks. That’s not good enough. There’s unlimited funds for war and nuclear weapons, but public services have to scrape and squeeze. That’s not good enough. The millionaires get tax cuts, and the millions get ignored. That is not good enough.
So a movement emerged that covered the entire political spectrum. It wasn’t about the SNP or the Yes campaign; Yes took on a life of its own.
There were Yes groups for everything you could think of. Youth for Yes and pensioners for Yes. Women for Yes. Asians, Poles and English people for Yes. Farmers and business people and taxi drivers and artists and nurses for Yes.
There was so much energy and enthusiasm! It felt like a brand new form of politics was taking shape, right before our eyes. This is what the new politics of Scotland could look like: diverse, vibrant, progressive, visionary. For many of us, it was the most exciting thing we’d ever experienced.
But then we lost the referendum.
Of course there were victories, too. In Aberdeen we had our own little victory just yesterday. Back in March, the council sent out letters telling everyone to vote no, so we collected over 100 complaints and delivered them to the council offices in a wheelbarrow. We also sent copies to the Public Standards Commission, and yesterday we heard they’re investigating seven senior councillors for misuse of public funds.
More broadly, 45% was an incredible achievement, especially in the face of the entire British establishment. There were unprecedented levels of engagement and voter registration. We won in four local authorities, including Scotland’s largest, most diverse city, and we came close in several other places. After the No vote, rather than switching off politically, thousands of people have joined pro-independence parties. And now, two months post-referendum, polls are showing that many No voters have realised their mistake.
But where does that leave the Radical Independence Campaign? Without independence, how can we enact radical social change?
It’s not going to be easy.
If only we could get loads of activists all in one place…
For too long the Left in Scotland was fragmented and prone to bickering. But the first Radical Independence Conference two years ago created a space for the Left to come together as equals and fight for something we could all agree on. We can’t lose sight of that. Whatever details may divide us, there are much bigger, much more fundamental principles that unite us.
We don’t have to agree on the details to fight for social justice, sustainability, equality, democracy and peace. We don’t have to agree on the details to stand in solidarity and fight for radical change.
Now, I have a lot in common with the SNP folk across the street today, and I admire Nicola Sturgeon and the Aberdeen MSPs we worked with during the campaign. But I think RIC is more important than ever.
Our job is to keep the pressure up and keep moving the debate to the left. Because we know that the full force of neoliberal capitalism is trying to drag everything to the right.
We’ve got the momentum now. Back in the 80s Margaret Thatcher said ‘there’s no such thing as society,’ but that kind of thinking is starting to break down. There is such a thing as society, and that means society can change. The false promise of hyper-individualism and endless competition looks more and more hollow, and people are looking for alternatives. Even the No campaign talked about social change.
But it’s up to us to keep social change on the political agenda. And more than that, it’s up to us to move beyond the halls of power into the real lives of real people.
Social change is not just an intellectual exercise. The working class estates of Scotland are not just a place to canvass when we’re looking for votes.
I’m not going to tell you how to go about creating the change we all want to see, but there are dozens of speakers here today who have plenty of ideas about where to start.
From there, it’s up to you.
The strength of RIC is its diversity. It’s attracted people from all sorts of social movements and pulled us together into something cohesive and effective. It’s shown us we can put aside our differences and work together.
We’re not a political party so we don’t have to toe a party line. There’s no central hierarchy, so local groups have the autonomy to do what makes sense where they are. Over the past two years, people have not only realised they’re activists, they’ve realised they don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission. If you want to see something happen YOU need to make it happen. But that’s incredibly liberating.
It’s also possible, maybe for the first time in decades.
We didn’t win the referendum, but Scotland has changed in our collective imagination. It’s become a place that can change. It’s our job to make sure that it does change.