The Radical Independence Campaign could win over the "missing million"

The movement's message of "Scotland for the people" offers the best chance of winning over those alienated from politics.

Alex Salmond lanched the White Paper on independence at a glitzy press event in Glasgow this morning, beginning a canny air war that has already enraged the unionists. But while political junkies are glued to the live coverage, forces on the ground that could ultimately determine the referendum are mobilising.

Crucial to this ground war is the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). They are a motley army of socialists, anarchists, greens, trade unionists and radicals of all stripes. On Saturday, I joined them as over a thousand rallied in Glasgow's Marriott Hotel to share ideas and flesh out their strategy to "take Scotland back for the people". 

The pro-Union campaign Better Together has described RIC as "the true face of independence." Far from a compliment, this is meant to tarnish the SNP, painting them as secret radicals. In the eyes of the unionists, RIC are nothing more than a bunch of lefty loonies determined to ditch the Queen, the pound and Nato membership in favour of building a socialist republic. In fact, they exist outside of the party and the official Yes campaign. Which is why it is astounding that in the space of a year they have built up such a strong following. Run on a shoestring by a small group of young activists, they have also managed to open local branches across Scotland, from the Highlands to the borders.

On Saturday, the campaign launched a rousing declaration of intent. It ends with the call for "a Scotland of the Common Weal, of shared wealth and shared wellbeing. Our Scotland. All of us first." The all-day conference was crammed with debate on how to build a new green economy, claim the oil wealth for the public and bolster the welfare state. The Common Weal initiative, referred to in the declaration, gives substance to their vision of a fairer, more equal Scotland with policy proposals for a high-wage, high-tax economy.

The Radical Independence Campaign is easily dismissed as utopian. But this misses the point. While they will not achieve their objectives, RIC may play a pivotal role in convincing voters that the independence movement is on the side of the common people. On Saturday, Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation called the referendum "a class conflict". He said "the rich are voting No", while those suffering under austerity are more likely to place their hopes in an alternative future.

The hope versus fear argument is also designed to reach out to the young. It's no surprise that the SNP made giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote a priority. For many young people in Scotland, growing up within the Union looks like a bleak prospect. Next year they will choose between strengthening the powers of a nation that offers them free education and a London government set to strip benefits from under-25s. They look to those implementing the cuts and see a Tory government for whom the Scottish never voted.

Take the story of Liam McLaughlin, a campaign activist. Liam is 17 years old and grew up in Easterhouse, one of the most deprived areas in Scotland. For him, the referendum boils down to an essential question: "is this the best that we can do?" On Saturday, he spoke about how the campaign can "plant the seed" in the minds of young people. He is helping to set up a Scotland-wide school students network to persuade first-time voters that an independent Scotland can do better. According to RIC, door-to-door campaigning in Easterhouse this month found not one resident in favour of staying in the UK.

The problem is getting these people to vote. Will the independence movement reach the "missing million", those habitual non-voters that are so often the elusive pot of gold for political parties? Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, believes so. "The UK's political culture is dead on its feet" he argued, while in contrast "this is the most inspiring and creative period," he said he could remember in Scottish politics. It is this civil awakening, outside of the SNP party structures, that has a chance at convincing those disaffected with politics. The Radical Independence Campaign’s strident message of "Scotland for the people" is more persuasive than debate on the ins and outs of corporation tax levels. The National Collective, who organised the after party on Saturday, will also prove important in getting the word out. As a loose network of artists and musicians for independence, they are spreading the message to Scots who may not trust campaigners or politicians.

When the SNP won the Scottish parliament back in 2011, it came as a shock to the political and media elite. The system was supposed to be geared to stop that majority from happening. I would not be surprised if another shock is around the corner. At least, for those who weren’t at Saturday’s conference. It ended with Cat Boyd, one of the most committed organisers, quoting the trade union activist Jimmy Reid: "The untapped potential of our north sea oil is nothing compared to the untapped potential of our people." Every one of the thousand participants on Saturday was urged to put boots on the ground, go door to door and reach the "missing million" of Scotland in the coming year. The Better Together campaign can only dream of bringing that number of activists together, let alone with that level of commitment and energy.

Outside the conference hall in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, 30 per cent of homes are jobless. These people have little faith in the political system to change their lot. But this is no ordinary vote. If apathetic and disillusioned citizens can be persuaded that an independent Scotland will bring real change to their lives, it isn’t even a question. Scotland will vote yes, with a mandate from the missing million.

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and front page editor at openDemocracy

Radical Independence paraphernalia and leaflets on display at its conference on November 23, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and front page editor at openDemocracy

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.