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An Organiser’s View: Just How Radical is Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign? | Nicky Patterson

23 Jun

This article serves as an open insight into the workings of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in Scotland over the past year.  The RIC has been an excellent movement which has energised and politicised a new generation of activists, and re-energised and re-politicised previous generations of activism. Central to the campaign is of course securing a Yes vote this September, however it is universally assumed that the RIC will continue beyond this as a vehicle of politicisation and articulation of radical working class politics.  As with all major political movements there have been negative manifestations, and it is to some of these that I turn in the hope of providing a useful moment of reflection and assessment upon which we can collectively work to ensure that this opportunity for politicisation, and subsequent development of resilience to the manifestations of capitalism in Scotland, is protected, maintained, and enhanced.

I have been an organiser with the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) since March 2013, working initially in East Kilbride outside Glasgow, and latterly from October 2013 in the southside of Glasgow.  Initially the campaign was quite an exciting and energetic left-wing movement which focused closely on participation, collectivity, autonomy, and solidarity for – and with – the disparate groups and individuals from across the left spectrum which initially comprised the RIC’s elementary formation.  I remember the buzz and excitement of meetings where socialists, communists, anarchists, Greens, trade unionists, and non-aligned radicals of various hues and stripes were designing their own campaign within their own communites, holding to a centrality of purpose which was undoubtedly a collective antithesis to the general malaise of alienation that Westminster, and all of its associated apparatus, has been able to foster and develop in recent decades.

This was most certainly true in the Summer of 2013, and was still probably so in the weeks following the second Radical Independence Conference in November 2013, held at the Glasgow Marriot Hotel and which was attended by around 1100 delegates from around Scotland.  Since then however, the latent central strategy of the RIC has been diffused and somewhat compromised by several potent social elements. This is undoubtedly a by-product of the RIC’s phenomenal early successes, but nonetheless has engendered a loss of left-wing spirit, and has certainly purged the movement of anything inherent and explicit which might be called radical.

The comprehensive strategy which was devised collectively by members of the Glasgow Southside RIC from November 2013-April 2014 focused on the establishment and facilitation of community based groups who could then govern their own campaign within their own community networks according to their own resources and capacity. The Glasgow Southside RIC initially covered every district within the conurbation south of the River Clyde: from Renfrew in the west through to Cambuslang in the east; from Gorbals and Govan in the north down to Castlemilk and Barrhead in the south. The sheer geographical size and complexity of this area could therefore only lend to such a strategy, but of course the group was also required to adopt the “central” or “national” RIC strategy, and the first symptoms of a shift away from what initially constituted “radical” practice within the RIC is derived from the interactions between this enigmatic core body, and the outlying RIC groups.

The RIC was designed and founded by the very talented and extremely energetic members of the International Socialist Group Scotland (ISG) – a small revolutionary socialist organisation which itself was founded in 2011 by a factional split of young members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Scotland – and it is no small testament to members of this organisation how popular the campaign, latterly a movement, has become.  As a member of the ISG until very recently, I was a witness to and sometimes a participant in the management and steerage of the RIC through assorted ISG-based group meetings.  Indeed most if not all of the organisers of Scotland wide branches of the RIC were until recently members, or ex-members, or close affiliates of the ISG, including myself.  The conflict then comes from the bipolar tensions between the determinations of this ‘hidden-committee’, which essentially boils down to no more than half-a-dozen key ISG operators, and the explicitly articulated, yet implicitly false “autonomy” of the local branches. Unfortunately as the campaign/movement has become increasingly popular, and even successful, so too have these two entities become largely compromised by mainstream currents and influences.  Firstly I will explain how this has happened and what it has meant so far for practical operations, and then I will return to how this has manifested in tense and often contradictory relations between the hidden-committee and the local branch of the RIC.

From the beginning there have been underlying tensions between the RIC and the Scottish Government initiated Yes Campaign (Yes). From the beginning too, Yes has undoubtedly been the very official, and often corporatised, vehicle of pro-independence campaigning, whilst the RIC has been the very unofficial and alternative-brand  vehicle – this is of course alongside other grassroots groups such as National Collective, Labour for Independence, and so on.  Indeed in some Yes branches there have even been resultant splits and factions between SNP officials or supporters, and ordinary or non-SNP members; and furthermore, (certainly in my experience as organiser) much of the early energy and drive from RIC recruits in the Summer and Autumn 2013 came from disaffected Yes campaigners seeking the space and agency to campaign beyond the strict remit of bland electoral-campaign praxis, and the confines of pre-White-Paper Yes rhetoric.  Since the RIC began to receive more press coverage however, and especially since the implementation of the excellent, and now ubiquitous, RIC Mass Canvass, we have seen a convergence of principles and interests between these two, initially very distinct campaigns.

There are two very clear explanations for this which will deliver for us a picture of the RIC’s shift away from its “Radical” roots. Firstly, there is recognition for the campaign’s success and popularity within the RIC’s hidden-committee, and this has in turn stimulated awareness of responsibility, and along with that, an awareness of risk. Partnered with the awareness of risk and responsibility naturally comes anxiety, an element of reactionary protectiveness, and subsequently a latent withdrawal of support for explicitly radical messages and activities.  The emergent “care-complex” harboured by the hidden-committee then signifies a paradoxical gain in confidence in the mainstream of the campaign, and a simultaneous loss of confidence in the radical spirit which produced the campaign itself.  Secondly, there is recognition of the RIC’s success and popularity within Yes too, who having hitherto failed to inspire the exponential grassroots growth rate of the RIC, have sought increasingly to collaborate with, infuse, and ultimately co-opt the RIC wherever feasible.  This has been achievable primarily through the vehicle of the Mass Canvass, where the RIC establish, organise, and publicise the actions, but rely upon Yes groups for the crucial elements of activity co-ordination, material supply, and data collation.  This practical co-operation, together with the seemingly magnetic convergence of both groups – the one which was radical becoming more mainstream, and the one which is mainstream becoming more radical – has undoubtedly resulted in the diffusion, and indeed confusion, of the RIC’s central radical strategy.

At the same time, and largely for the same reasons, this has also resulted in the diffusion, and ultimate confusion, of local radical strategy for the RIC.  As more Yes campaigners, as well as more “ordinary” or previously unengaged campaigners, joined with their local RIC groups, the potency of the original radical strategy – particularly that of local, and localised autonomy – became diluted by a more common tendency for deference to hierarchical notions of superiority or authority. New energies and talents have been joining the RIC all along and have been most welcome; what their contributions have not been matched with is a mode of emersion in and internalisation of the original principles of the RIC.  This role would naturally have previously fallen to the guidance and discipline of the hidden-committee, or at least its proxy quasi-democratic decision-making device known as the RIC National Forum – a monthly gathering of delegates from around Scotland to discuss those elements of national-campaign concern, such as pass the sanction of the hidden-committee.  Of course, no group is perfect, and I believe that had the ISG understood how successful and popular their RIC movement would become, there would have been sufficient forethought and urgency such as to realise better models of collective decision making than those which currently exist.  At any rate it is a singularly fundamental failing of the RIC to have mis-handled the influx of naivety and reaction that came with its rise in success and popularity.  So in a very real manner we have seen the mainstream-isation of the RIC at both its local and central levels.

In Glasgow’s Southside RIC group for example, this has resulted in Yes agencies agitating for and eventually securing power within the main organising group. This influence has not come from the local Yes Cathcart office, which has in fact been a fantastic supporting organisation without seeking to appropriate or co-opt control, but rather from a clique within the Yes Govan office which, on the establishment of a RIC Govan group enquired as to the authority which sanctioned the group, and subsequently sought to sanction the RIC Govan groups activities on a week-to-week basis [I will intimate here that from here on all references to Yes Govan are made to directly represent the clique involved in this case, and not to represent the Yes Govan office in its entirety, which I understand does an incredible amount of good and hard streetwork for the Yes campaign].  As the organiser who facilitated the establishment of the RIC Govan group – an important strategic location where the potential to campaign away from the influence of local SNP officials had to be secured – this required my very deliberate creation of space for RIC Govan members through the very deliberate creation of a (temporary) barrier to the Yes Govan antagonists.  Such a situation naturally led to conflict which has sadly been ongoing for most of 2014 without appropriate intervention by either campaign group.  One might naturally presume that the RIC hidden-committee would support the right and the agency of Govan based members to establish their own campaign group; however, whether by appeasement of Yes Govan induced by the emergent care-complex in the hidden-committee, or whether by a clash of personal interests (both parties in the dispute being linked in some way to the ISG), this support failed to materialise.  This hampered the RIC Govan group’s abilities severely, and the lack of intervention eventually led to the moves by Yes Govan to seek greater control within the RIC Glasgow Southside organising group.

The practical strategy realised for the southside – being among the most important urban campaign areas in Scotland, was basically to begin at the River Clyde and identify three community areas to begin work in, and once working branches were established and functioning, to move south into neighbouring communities, and so on: each preceding area being understood to harbour forthcoming links in areas leading away from the city centre. These initial areas were Govan, Gorbals, and Rutherglen/Cambuslang.  The work would involve identification of key community operators; their conversion into agents for the campaign; establishment of basic streetwork activities; a mass canvass; a public meeting; and finally the establishment of a community-based working group to continue the campaign accordingly; and then we move on – leaving a well-networked and high-functioning activist-community.  Throughout this however there have been implicit caveats exerted by the RIC hidden-committee as to who can be allowed to join the groups, and these descriptors – rather than aiming to avoid reactionary elements as one might expect – were designed to avoid members of particular other left-wing organisations.  Indeed this sectarian preoccupation over group-control and membership vetting has not only hampered the progress of the campaign – especially in light of the more radical expressions, but has also distracted the RIC hidden-committee from whom and what is entering the movement by different means, and with different aims.

This strategy however is specifically designed to precipitate power and control for the community-based groups i.e. RIC Govan, and not for the facilitation-based groups which operate in more general geographical areas, i.e. the RIC Glasgow Southside.  In the Glasgow Southside group, the Yes Govan agent who had opposed such a strategy, eventually recruited two members of the RIC who were both new, but who had demonstrated excellent energy and initiative, to oppose the strategy.  These recruits were also in a social position whereby they were able to influence and distort the feedback signal coming from the RIC Glasgow Southside group back to the hidden-committee.  The result of such complex relations has meant that new branches established in Rutherglen/Cambuslang, Castlemilk, and Drumchapel, have received little, or indeed in the case of the latter two, no support from the RIC at official level – and this is despite the efforts of this organiser and my supporting comrades in various groups.  In fact the situation has become so farcical that this Yes-Govanite faction has since grown – along with the usual soap-opera  dramatics – and has succeeded in its persistent attempts to remove me as an organiser, as well as to alienate me from the group (and groups) as far as possible, along with those other members whom they identify as being sympathetic to the original strategy – including of course the organisers of the new groups.  Moreover, as recently as last week, even newer groups that have been established in the southside of Glasgow – e.g. Carnwadric, Pollokshields, Castlemilk, Govanhill, Pollokshaws, and others – were contacted by the Yes-Govanite faction of RIC Glasgow Southside with notice that their groups were not sanctioned nor recognised by the RIC (effectively this means not recognised by the faction and the hidden-committee).  Notably the group which operates in the Gorbals, does not call itself a branch, and is ran by two members of the Yes-Govanite faction, thus leaving the group dynamic itself open to co-option and coercion by deference to the aforementioned superior “authorities”.  How radical, how participatory, how progressive do these developments seem? Not at all I claim, in fact these are the backward reactions of power-seeking interests which should not be accommodated in the once excellent (and can-be-again) Radical Independence Campaign!

Now I am making my official public protest to these developments in this article, and I will undoubtedly receive redoubled attacks for doing so – but my doing so must make the movement stronger and not weaker: the Radical Independence Campaign is already a success, it will be a success, but it must also be a success in respect of addressing its failings.  I fully accept that some colleagues and comrades will view this as a personal attack on the RIC, but instead this does not motivate me – what does is my fear that the opportunity to invest power in communities, and to lift the voice of the working class into the referendum conversation, will not be fulfilled in what little time we have left before polling day.  Nevertheless I appreciate that such an act may require my full withdrawal from RIC activity.  If this article gives cause for unionist delight however, then it is misunderstood, and such delight can only be rendered as misplaced schadenfreude: the unionist campaign is the campaign (and not a movement) of perpetual agony and anxiety – there is no case for a No vote. Any attempt to rejoice in what is essentially the teething troubles of a new generation’s social movement, can only serve to demonstrate the retarded and perverse philosophy of our political class, and their acolytes. No, this article must be interpreted as open, honest, and constructive criticism, to which we must all allow ourselves to turn in such an age of austere and prosthetic politicking.

What I have witnessed, most especially since the emergence of the original Mass Canvass action at Easterhouse, is the co-option of the RIC hidden-commmittee by the mainstream, which has simultaneously curbed the movement’s radical potentiality, and opened up the movement at street-level to subversion by careerist, by bourgeois, and thus by reactionary interests.  I have of course been extremely troubled by these events – as a sufferer of chronic depression and anxiety, the witnessing of a campaign which literally brought me back from the brink of suicide being undermined and subverted, along with my agency in it, has brought some intensely bleak periods of illness recently.  But this is about much more than just me.  Therefore do not read this as the miserable complaint of a dejected and sore campaigner, but rather as the insight of an organiser who has worked tirelessly to foster community-empowerment and resilience to future versions of exploitation, for and by the communities themselves, and thus not via the paternalistic modes of current bourgeois praxis. This is a plea for restoration, for articulation, and for consideration.  If the current hidden-committee is conducive to the most efficient modes of operation, then I can accept its agency – what cannot be accepted however is its lack of accountability, nor its selective currents of communication which seem to be open to some, yet closed to others.  This may be a call for more explicit structure, but at the very least is a call for a conversation about supposed autonomy, and the apparent favourable relationships which circumvent, and thus undermine such a principle.

In the southside of Glasgow we have over 400 members, most of whom were recruited whilst I was organising there; at organising meetings however we are struggling to make over twenty members – and some of those within the power-seeking Yes-Govanite faction have stated that the other 380+ members do not matter, as they do not attend the meetings.  I say that this attitude is fundamentally wrong, and that efforts must be made to facilitate the agency, participation and empowerment of these other members.  I say that the new apparent strategy of divesting power from those members who have established their own community based RIC groups is fundamentally wrong, and plays into the hands of those who seek power rather than those that need power.  I say that the original strategy must be re-established, that these local groups are re-affirmed, and that the RIC leadership restore to the radical roots of the campaign, which explicitly challenge reaction and bourgeois power-play, and which champion the voice and the power of working class communities throughout Scotland!


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