By Jen Stout (Staff Writer)
Disclosure: I am a tired, cynical lefty, rarely excited about politics. After years of activism of various kinds, I came to the conclusion that the only really useful thing I ever did was physically prevent UKBA dawn-raid vans and deportations, and I should have just done this more. Politics to me looked increasingly like a choice between life in cliquey isolated left groups, or trying to climb, shame-faced, into an inaccessible party/media elite of some shade. None of this seemed tempting. Recently though, a bit of optimism and hope has crept back in.
Something is happening in Scotland which few predicted. The possibility of a yes vote in the independence referendum has proved the catalyst for serious and wide-ranging political engagement. It shouldn’t be disregarded as mere nationalism – this is far bigger than the official Yes Scotland campaign. Groups representing many different political shades, interests, and sections of society have emerged pursuing a yes vote, each with their own specific take on the potential benefits of independence. The mainstream media remain staunchly pro-Union, with an extraordinary, if unsurprising, bias in their reporting – but much of the debate takes place online. And though of course some of this takes the form of antagonistic posturing, much seems to be extremely constructive.
The huge political apathy in the UK and elsewhere is understandable - the major parties are ideologically similar, and First Past the Post resulted in 52.8% votes being wasted in the 2010 general election. Class is the biggest factor in all this – there are fewer working class MPs now, and it is much harder for working-class young people to access media and political elites. New Labour turned to the right long ago, and a tiny number of ‘swing’ constituencies determine policy. Neoliberalism, this system of privatisation, welfare removal, and driving down wages, encourages political apathy. You don’t need the Tories to be in power to achieve this stuff, New Labour did it pretty well; however the ‘nasty party’ are conducting the class war with a particular relish these days.
Against this backdrop of apathy and poverty, the yes movement’s momentum and diversity certainly surprised me and many others. I was at the Radical Independence Campaign’s conference in 2012; cautiously interested in the lefty tone of the independence debate emerging at that time. I was taken aback by the 800-strong audience; at RIC’s 2013 conference it was more than 1,000. Since then I’ve been at countless packed-out meetings, heard real debate taking place out with the mainstream media, and seen groups appear like Labour for Indy, Academics for Indy, Women for Indy, Third Sector Yes, National Collective, and many more. High-quality journalism is appearing in the likes of Bella Caledonia and others. I’ve noticed the Reid Foundation’s Common Weal policy documents reported on in national newspapers, and discussed at party conferences. This is a startling change in Scotland’s political culture.
Sadly this broad and diverse movement is treated with bafflement or simply derision by commentators both in Scotland and south of the border. Equating the independence movement with ‘narrow’ or ‘ethnic’ nationalism is commonplace. Like Vonny Moyes, I myself am ‘deficient in shortbread-tin zeal’ and am far more interested in class and gender equality than flags and national pride. I don’t expect everything to be rosy come Independence Day. I don’t peddle certainties and don’t think we should seek them. I am, though, hopeful about the potential and momentum building in Scotland - even up here in Shetland, where Lib Dem lairds still rule. Cat Boyd has described the referendum as a ‘tiny crack’ in the ‘dark wall of militarism, economic exploitation and institutional sexism’  that is the UK, and I see more light coming through every day. A yes vote no longer seems impossible - but actually it seems to me that political re-engagement and opposition to neoliberalism have flourished in Scotland as a result of this independence debate, and that regardless of the referendum outcome, this political shift will not disappear.
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