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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.

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

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