Three years on from the independence referendum, politics is moving ever faster. In looking back we must look forward.
“In some decades nothing happens, in some weeks decades happen.”
It feels like we’re living in a decade of weeks in which decades happen. Political change keeps accelerating – from the student protests in 2010 to the ongoing mess the UK government is making of Brexit.
There’s much to regret in this. It’s been a decade of right-wing rule in the UK, people’s lives have been very badly damaged by austerity, the NHS in England is close to collapse, and the ongoing attack on immigrants is a political stain.
But the 2014 Scottish independence referendum stands apart from this. It was here that the left began to learn how to win. The issue of independence isn’t one that is necessarily of the left. For much of the campaign opponents of independence tried to characterise it as a right-wing cause. That characterisation didn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and the reason behind that is what was so invigorating about the campaign. We believed that another Scotland was possible.
For the first time in my political lifetime ideas had the space to breathe on the left. We weren’t campaigning to have ‘our people’ cut taxes, remove regulations and privatise things, rather than letting ‘their people’ do it. We moved from opposing austerity to building support for alternatives.
Ideas that had been fringe and underappreciated gained new currency. We talked about the opportunities for a Citizen’s Basic Income, for a Land Value Tax, for a profoundly different type of government. People became engaged in a popular debate about the benefits of a Scottish currency.
Through 2 years of public meetings we moved from a triangulated set of proposals to tweak the post-Thatcherite consensus of British politics to a lively carnival of ideas. This was the first time I’d seen movement politics truly manifested. The old, neoliberal politics was knocked sideways. There were repeated calls to stop such debate, because it was distasteful.
And that way of doing politics hasn’t died. The ideas popularised through the referendum have worked their way into the latest Scottish Government “Programme for Government.” The Women for Independence campaign against a new national women’s prison quickly secured victory. The work of organisations like Common Weal has put a National Investment Bank on the agenda. But most of all, it created a new way of doing politics: exciting, progressive, idea-rich and transformative for society.
Armed with more access to information than ever before, with a combination of online and offline meetings, and faced with a ruling hegemony deep in crisis this way of doing politics may change the 21st century as the pamphleteers changed the 17th century, or trade unions changed the 20th century.
Of course many people found this difficult. The neoliberal consensus came with a comforting disdain for debate, disagreement and discussion. Learning to do politics again can mean people take their passions too far. The answer was not to exclude debate, it was to find ways to channel those passions constructively. During the campaign that was, I think, a success.
It’s hard not to see echoes of this movement-politics in the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders and in the Corbyn movement. It is far from perfect, but if we are to create a better world democratically we need to learn from this unforgettable political moment. With more access to communication tools at lower cost than ever before, the weeks in which decades happen will come more and more frequently. Popular movements can help harness those decisive moments for progressive change. It’s not just another Scotland that is possible. Another world is possible.