Yesterday was spent attending the Radical Independence Conference 2013 in Glasgow, organised by the Radical Independence Campaign which employs the slogan “Another Scotland Is Possible”.
We were a thousand strong, packed into a big room in the Marriott Hotel where we were addressed by a series of very able and persuasive speakers all of whom see Scottish independence as an opportunity to do good things for the people of Scotland.
The speakers came from different political parties and organisations – Greens, Scottish Socialists, Oxfam, SNP, Yes Scotland – each of whom had a particular perspective, but the common themes were poverty, injustice, lack of opportunity, lack of control of resources, democratic dysfunction, and the abject failure of the British state to do anything about these things.
For me, the speakers who captured the essence of the complaint were two women who aren’t politicians. Saffron Dickson, a teenager, spoke of a desperate lack of opportunity among Scots of her generation and appealed for inspiration and empowerment in an independent Scotland. Susan Archibald, a disability rights campaigner, painted a graphic picture of the day-to-day struggles of people living with the unrelenting burden of poverty. Saffron and Susan dispelled any doubt that change is required.
The rants and ramblings from platform and floor were entertaining, but by mid-afternoon I was becoming exasperated. The conference had been billed as an event where radical ideas for building a better Scotland, post independence, were to be aired and discussed but all I was hearing was indignation and complaint about the UK. Repetitive and unproductive.
In reality RIC2013 was little more than a rally where an ecumenical coalition of evangelists preached to an enthusiastic congregation of the faithful about the iniquity of the British state and the dream of escape to the Promised Land of independent Scotland.
One session was entitled “Eliminating Poverty: Funding Welfare and Social Services”. We spent most of the 90 minutes listening to speakers from the panel and the floor telling us how bad the problems were. A man from Leith eventually got a chance to voice frustration at the lack of discussion about solutions, for which he got a round of applause, but that was it. The room continued on its ramble through the litany of injustice with no destination in sight.
The only speaker who came close to providing us with something that could be described as a solution was Rafi de Santos, an economist who has done some useful number crunching on the current and future state of the Scottish economy. His proposed solution, however, is extensive nationalisation – bringing much of Scottish industry under the control of an independent Scottish government. Rafi might be right in his analysis but he’ll have an uphill struggle persuading the electorate of Scotland that wholesale nationalisation is the best solution. Just because an idea isn’t popular doesn’t mean it’s radical.
As a rally the event was a huge success. The preachers were eloquent and the faithful were energised. But there was a terrible failure to recognise that the people in the room represented a tiny minority of the Scottish electorate. The vast majority of us who are eligible to vote in next year’s referendum are cynical, disengaged, apathetic, doing just well enough in our own lives, concentrating on the day-to-day, avoiding the poverty on the periphery, more or less content with our lot, unable to see the possibility of something better for ourselves or anyone else. We weren’t in the room, but we’re the people who hold the keys to a radical independent Scotland.
There is nothing radical in campaigning against poverty and injustice. People have been at it for centuries. If those behind the Radical Independence Campaign want us to become engaged with the idea of a better, independent Scotland they’re going to have to come up with something that’s truly radical, something that captures the collective imagination. It has to define a problem that we all recognise as significant and propose a solution that we all believe is plausible.
Without one big idea behind which we can all rally the independence referendum will be decided on how many of the apathetic can be frightened into voting “no” or bullied into voting “yes”.
Without a big idea to drive the debate beyond a “yes” vote our independent Scotland will become nothing more than a smaller version of what we already have: a squabble over resources in a financial system that’s designed to fail.
There were glimmers of an idea that could become the big one. I heard four of the speakers and one contributor from the floor promote the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) as a means of providing social security for all. This is a radical concept from the perspective of social justice but UBI could change much more than just the welfare system. Depending on how it is designed a UBI system could radically change for the better how we do finance, banking, taxation, employment and much more.
For me, the most hopeful contribution came from Ailsa McKay, Professor of Economics at Glasgow Caledonian University. Those of you who have read my book will know that I’m not much impressed by mainstream economics but Ailsa is a breath of fresh air. She told us that economists have shaped the world in which we live and their concepts are ultimately responsible for most of the inequality and injustice that we see around us. She says that many professional economists, working in industry and academia, are embracing the idea that economics must change both how and why it does things, focusing on people rather than numbers, trying to do good rather than doing intellectual gymnastics.
Despite my frustration the day wasn’t wasted. The energy and commitment of a thousand people all wanting to make make the world a better place for themselves and their neighbours was inspiring. Although it wasn’t very radical, it was hopeful.