The third Scotland won’t be denied – whatever the referendum result
The Guardian, by John Harris
Outside Scotland’s two dominant parties a group of radical young voices is blazing a trail for a fresh kind of left politics
The session is titled Seven minutes to Yes. Seven supporters of the organisation Women for Independence take 420 seconds each to explain why they will be voting yes in September’s referendum, by talking not just about politics and ideals but about their own personal stories.
What follows is often very moving: accounts of nitty-gritty experience spanning two or three generations that dovetail into ideas of equality and social justice. One woman, Selma Rahman, reaches into her pockets for a pair of scissors and her Labour membership card, and then cuts up a symbol of at least three decades of loyalty – in protest, she says, at what she sees as Labour’s tolerance of the social model that has given us food banks. This is one of many reminders not just of the human foundations on which politics ought to be based but of the kind of raw humanity that is sorely lacking south of the border.
The Seven Minutes discussion is part of Yestival, a touring event organised by the pro-independence National Collective that is travelling around Scotland for the whole of July. Its £31,000 costs have been crowdfunded. The basic idea is in keeping with the collective’s quest to render the political cultural, and vice versa: debate and discussion mixed with music, spoken word, photography, film and art. By comparison with metropolitan Labour’s latest limited engagement with kul-chah – Stephen Fry and Grayson Perry encouraging a roomful of wealthy people to buy overpriced knick-knacks while the press dredge up limp headlines about Cool Britannia – Yestival is alive with ideas, and substance.
In mainstream reporting of the independence debate, the buildup to the referendum is too often reduced to either a wrestling match between Alex Salmond and whichever pro-union politician is up for a fight that week (the first minister’s TV debate with Alastair Darling will happen on August 5), or suggestions that everyone’s mind will be made up by hard thinking about the banks, North Sea oil, and whether the yes or no camp’s sums add up best. In this vision, people will go to polling stations on 18 September with a mindset somewhere between that of a lobby correspondent and a desiccated calculating machine. Real politics is surely more visceral, bound up with the fundaments of the way people think about themselves, and their place in the world.
Yestival embodies those qualities, as well as shining light on a loose amalgam of new forces the Glasgow-based writer and academic Gerry Hassan calls "the third Scotland", in recognition of the fact that it lies largely beyond his country’s two dominant parties. Hassan credits it with a "fuzzy, messy, non-partisan" way of doing politics, and recognises that its single biggest element is made up of people under 30. Those involved make the case for an independent Scotland, he says, "not as nationalists, but as radical democrats, egalitarians, feminists, greens and numerous other variants impatient at the closed, complacent conversations of ‘official Scotland’".
Some of them might blur into the more creative fringes of the SNP, but a lot of people believe that Salmond’s party is both Janus-faced – trying to combine Nordic social visions with essentially Anglo-American economics – and increasingly arrogant and centralising. Not surprisingly, Scotland’s grumpy, borderline moribund Labour party is talked about in terms of either indifference or despair.
The third Scotland’s main constituent parts are National Collective, the Radical Independence Campaign – a loose coalition of greens, ex-Labour lefties and socialist-inclined newbies – and, by way of ideological oomph, the Jimmy Reid Foundation. The latter is sometimes lazily described as a thinktank but is much more ambitious. Its high-profile Common Weal project holds out a vision of "all of us first" politics replacing "me first" politics; its director, Robin McAlpine, has recently suggested his organisation may soon spawn its own online newspaper, city-centre gathering places, and even a TV service.
The key question is simple enough: what will happen to the third Scotland in the wake of the referendum, which the latest polling suggests might still be a close-run thing? If the yes side wins, the people of the third Scotland will benefit from a huge injection of self-validation, and surely carve out a role within the resulting tumult. They will be one of the key forces holding the SNP to account. They will also have to work out where they sit in a new political system that will take shape free of no end of shibboleths – not least the 20th-century assumption that the centre-left should be led by Labour.
By contrast, the more imaginative elements of the yes campaign could be severely tested not just by a no vote but by what might follow it: not quite the joyous arrival of increased devolution being talked up by many pro-union politicians but, as has been recently suggested, greater powers for Holyrood being accompanied by swingeing cuts to Scotland’s share of public spending. An associated possibility might be Labour and the SNP reluctantly coming together to thrash out a defensive post-referendum constitutional settlement – which could easily represent an attempted exclusion of the third Scotland, and the restoration of politics-as-usual.
There may be something to such predictions, but the energy and vision on display at Yestival suggests that Scotland’s new political forces will endure – and noisily take against – any post-referendum stitch-ups. Indeed, whatever the referendum result, some people look forward, albeit cautiously, to the foundation of a new party blazing a trail for a fresh kind of left politics, whose novelty will be as much about its organisation and culture as its policies and ideology: an idea already starting to be discussed in the Scottish media.
Comparable developments to the third Scotland have started to happen elsewhere in the UK; now that it has partly liberated itself from the Labour party, Compass is probably the best example. What new radicals outside Scotland are lacking, though, is any clear sense of what could spark the start of a realignment in the way that the independence referendum has done here. All I know is this: I want a third England and a third Wales. And, given the disgrace into which orthodox politics is tumbling all over the UK, it may not be too long before they arrive.