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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage