#RIC2014: Sean’s Speech
The last two years have been an inspiration for myself and many others, the referendum awakened Scotland politically like nothing before, and the levels of activism throughout were unprecedented. We were part of the political fight that will be the defining battle of our generation. It was a battle that was fought by ordinary people in streets, community centres, pubs and coffee shops, the length and breadth of the country. People getting involved in political campaigns that had never voted before.
We found ourselves up against the might of the British and World establishments, we had the political elite, the media and big business to contend with, yet we were 200,000 votes from winning. 97% of the population registered and nearly 85% turned out to vote, so we very nearly won this despite being up against all of the establishment. This was in no small part due to the hard work put in up and down the country by ordinary people on ordinary working class estates.
The working class areas where we canvassed and held public meetings voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. Northfield where I live voted 65% in favour of change, Seaton where we had our biggest mass canvass 60% and Tillydrone 75% in a city that was 60% no.
The very places where the change that could be brought about, was most needed, voted for that change. I think it’s clear that had we of had this level of engagement from the start we would be sitting in a very different conference today!
So the question is, HOW did we come so close to winning?
Well in my opinion by normalising politics. By having the conversation with people at their doors in our mass canvasses, in community centres, at local music events, at football games, in coffee shops and in the pub. Meetings were held all over the country, Independence became the subject that was never too far away in people’s minds, and politics became normal. Politics became something that was very much a part of our culture, people felt comfortable to talk about it. We were no longer accepting the narrative, if you talk about politics you were somehow boring.
And importantly the conversations were mainly centred on social justice. On what the change could mean for Scotland. For the majority this was not about a flag or a border.
So how do we hold onto and further this? How do we further this normalisation of politics, how do we make it something that is truly participatory and engaging?
I think we need to be doing exactly what we did during the referendum, we need to be getting back out into our communities and trying to help build a truly grassroots movement, we should be going street to street, estate to estate friend to friend and comrade to comrade trying to reinvigorate the momentum that was built up over the last 2 years, having conversations with the same people that we talked to over the referendum period.
Let’s start helping to build groups of likeminded people, let’s continue building relationships with already existing community groups and activist groups.
For me this is a fundamentally important aspect of taking this movement forward.
I understand that it is easy for me to say this, but how do we actually move this forward? Well there are some great examples of this throughout the world and in Scotland, and I am sure that people are hearing about some of the international examples at the main stage just now, and I will talk in a minute about some of my own experience in the Basque Country.
But first I want to talk a bit about what we are doing in Aberdeen at the moment.
In Aberdeen we have always focused on what the council call regeneration areas, basically these are some of the areas with the highest levels of social deprivation, areas where 1 in 3 kids grow up in poverty and where our senior citizens have to make the choice between heating their homes and feeding themselves. And this is only made worse by the fact that Aberdeen is one of the richest places in the UK. From the outside people look at Aberdeen and see wealth, but that is only true of those who work in the oil industry.
So myself and a group of other activists from Northfield, one of the regeneration areas, have started to work together to build an RIC community group, a group that is explicitly political and will work on campaigns that affect them, like the local school closures that are being affected in Aberdeen at the moment or indeed on campaigns with the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network, but fundamental to this is that we must take our leadership from our communities. If we are to be truly grassroots and democratic, we must help to build this movement from the bottom up.
To get this off the ground we decided to go around the community using contacts that we built during the referendum campaign, we have been knocking doors talking to people, we revisited the community centres talking to already existing community groups, everything from boxing clubs to bingo nights. We are getting genuine interest from the people that we are talking to, the groups that we have talked to are really keen to get involved in something that is truly grassroots, local and run by them. We have a public meeting arranged for the 3rd of December where we will look at how we move forward.
At the moment this is still a pilot, and I am sure we don’t have it perfected yet, but we can learn from our mistakes and use the model to help other communities build their own local groups, there is an existing activist base in all of these areas already, but working on disparate campaigns with little cohesion. Our part in this should be to pull them all together, to use and share the skills, knowledge and experience that we have developed over the past 2 years. To use the contacts that we have built to bring communities around Aberdeen together, then connecting these groups with progressives throughout the city in working groups that operate city wide. These working groups will campaign on issues that unite us. Uniting progressives in Northfield with progressives in Tillydrone. And building so we can unite people in Aberdeen with people in Dundee, uniting people on the east coast with people on the west coast. This kind of solidarity can create the conditions to bring about real social change. It can prove to people that we are not powerless, and that there is an alternative to the usual suited political elite, that we don’t have to wait for someone to tell us what to do, that we do not have to go back in the box.
I wanted to give you some background on why I have arrived at this tactical view. I mentioned earlier that I would talk a little bit about a personal experience in the Basque Country. Earlier this year I travelled to the Basque country to represent RIC at a politics and music festival, and I know this may sound like hyperbole, but this trip changed me. Not my political ideology, but my thinking around tactics to further our campaign.
One of the things that really quickly became apparent to me was the diverse, deep rooted and committed activist base. Now I know the situation is very different in the Basque Country to the one we face here, but there are comparisons and there are lessons to be learned. For instance the music festival I attended had 10000 people through its gates over the weekend, remember this was an overtly political event. I met and spoke to people from every walk of life, young and old, from parties or none, socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, but also people who were none of the above, but were still politically engaged and on their own terms.
Now we could argue that the reason for this engagement is the historical context of the Basque Country, and while this may play a big part we have to recognise the part that community, music, sports and culture play. They play a huge part in normalising politics, for instance they have squats in every town and village where activists can meet up to organise, get support, share ideas or just socialise. Where I stayed when not at the music festival, in a wee town called Sistao, it was right in the middle of the local festibala, an event that lasts for 6 days. 6 days of singing dancing and general merrymaking. At this festibala activists from various campaign and community groups get together to take over a space in the town centre, they had little bars set up and run by the different campaign groups, sports teams and community groups. The sense of community and politics went hand in hand. I could go on about this all day, but I need to finish up now, but these are just a few examples of how we can normalise politics, how we can be involved in a political movement that engages with everyone.
This is about more than tactics, this is about a complete change of mind set.
So let’s get back out into the areas we canvassed and show that when we said the Radical Independence Campaign were not going away, that this actually meant something.