Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond recently drew on the rhetoric of Barack Obama’s 2008 US presidential election campaign to assert “Yes, we can”.
He challenged the pessimism and doom-mongering of Better Together, the official No to independence campaign—or Project Fear as it is commonly known.
Comparing Obama’s campaign for the White House with what is currently happening in Scotland might seem far-fetched, but there are similarities. Obama succeeded in drawing into activity huge numbers of people who until then had shown little interest in politics.
Similarly, today in Scotland people who have never attended a political meeting are turning out in their hundreds and thousands. People are eager to discuss what independence might mean for them and their children.
You would have to go back to the anti poll tax campaigns of the late 1980s to find such high levels of working class involvement in politics. For example, anti bedroom tax campaigner Tommy Sheridan has addressed an estimated 12,000 people in independence meetings across Scotland in recent months. That includes 400 people in the west coast port of Oban, with a population of 8,500. It was probably the biggest meeting in the town’s history.
Large meetings have also been held across Scotland by the official Yes campaign, the Radical Independence Campaign and different socialist organisations, including Labour for Independence. Overwhelmingly the mood at these meetings is one of support for independence.
However, it’s far from being a predominantly nationalist mood. Rather many see independence as providing a chance to break with the politics of austerity and create a different kind of society. Nor is that support limited to attending meetings.
More than 1,000 Yes supporters took part in an all?Scottish canvas in 50 different towns on 22 June. This built on the success of a number of local mass canvasses. With the No campaign still ahead in the polls, a majority Yes vote on 18 September is far from being in the bag. But it’s exactly this kind of mass activity and campaigning with socialist arguments at its heart that can make the difference.
There’s another less positive lesson to be learned from the US experience. Following Obama’s election in 2008, that mass electoral campaign was quietly wound up and the enthusiasm allowed to dissipate.
Obama went on to repeatedly water down promised healthcare reforms, he failed to close the prison camp at Guantanamo and continued the imperialist war in Afghanistan. Hope turned into cynicism, and there was no movement from below to challenge him.
The vision on offer from the ruling SNP is similarly problematic. It involves keeping the queen as head of state, staying in Nato and keeping the pound as the currency. It also means making Scotland a haven for big business by reducing corporation tax.
Despite occasional radical rhetoric, the SNP government has given no indication it is prepared to challenge the power and wealth of either Scottish or other global multinationals. Yet without that challenge, tackling the poverty and inequality that blight the lives of so many people in Scotland will remain a pipedream.
Austerity in one form or another will continue to be the order of the day. The current hope and enthusiasm could easily turn into apathy, whatever the outcome of the referendum.
That places a big responsibility on the Scottish left to keep that radical vision alive. We must support every community and workplace struggle challenging the kind of despair that recently led to the election of a Ukip MEP in Scotland.
It’s encouraging that, according to reports in last weekend’s Sunday Herald, sections of the left are discussing the possibility of a united socialist party. The need for such a party has never been greater and we in the Socialist Workers Party are keen to play a part in helping to build it.
If it is to succeed, however, such a party needs to be genuinely inclusive. It must involve ALL those who are fighting back against austerity and racism, and for a different kind of Scotland. Its starting point has to be the needs of working class people in Scotland today, not the splits of a decade ago.