Scotland: ‘the Opportunity for Real People Power’

TPQ reproduces the following piece from a Glaswegian community activist. It featured in People and Nature on 10 September 2014.

  • In this guest post, Catherine Milligan, a socialist and community activist who lives in the Castlemilk housing scheme in Glasgow, explains how she has changed her view of the referendum on Scottish independence

I am voting Yes to Scottish independence, and I haven’t come to that decision easily – because I call myself a socialist, and believe I am a citizen of the world, and felt it was ill advised to break up the working class movement in Britain. I also fear the rise of fascism, especially in England where Ukip have free range to expound their ideas via most established media outlets.

Standing room only at one of the meetings in Castlemilk, Glasgow, to discuss the referendum
Standing room only at one of the meetings in Castlemilk, Glasgow, to discuss the referendum

However the young people of Scotland have changed my point of view, in that they are very pro-Yes and their arguments for this are very sound in my eyes.

They are clearly saying that it is not about nationalism: it’s about having a voice that can be heard – which they do not have now. They state clearly that they hate the Tory and Lib Dem government that represents millionaires and the elite, and doesn’t care that children are going without food. The increase in foodbanks, in a country that is relatively wealthy, is shameful.

Young people in Scotland put the blame firmly on the unfair distribution of wealth. They state that it’s not about any politician – it’s about us, the people, having our say in shaping our future.

The talk is not about Scotland and Scottish people being superior, but about the opportunity for real people power.

The queues of people lining up outside the City Chambers in Glasgow last Tuesday, the 2nd of September to register to vote – on the last day that they could – speaks volumes.

There are literally thousands turning out every night, and in the afternoons even, to meetings to engage in the debate.

The meetings I have been involved in Castlemilk have been about the ideas of socialism. This is a poor and downtrodden area, and here people have came out in huge numbers. The campaign here registered 389 people to vote: those are voices that usually go unheard.

One of the initial meetings held here, on “Independence: a case for socialism”, was attended by around 200 people, around a third of them young people. This was followed up by a meeting set up by and for young people which they named the Referenjam, because they wanted to have music, poems and self expression as part of the debate. They designed their own leaflet which was not at all about flags – in fact they made sure that there was no flag waving, just their design in the the colours of red and yellow, traditionally socialist colours. The night was successful. About 30 young people discussed and debated their future and their total contempt of established politics and politicians. They also discussed the idea of nationalism as being backward.

The point being that they want the power to make decisions for themselves.
Another significant fact is that whilst the Orange Order try to create divisions among these young people, this is being challenged and undermined. Some are Rangers [football] fans [i.e. traditionally from Protestant families] who are embarrassed by the fact they are being associated with such backwardness.

But listening to them talk about unfairness, about the hypocrisy of the Tories and Lib Dems, about the downright betrayal of the Labour Party, and the need to fight for a better, fairer world were wealth is made for and by the people, was and is inspirational.

So in my eyes the movement here for a Yes vote is strong, healthy and progressive … not what the establishment, or even the Scottish Nationalist party, envisaged at all.
The context is everything. The exposure of capitalism and its greed is so clear in the eyes of these young people. The English people are not the enemies – and because of social media, they don’t rely on the established media (BBC, ITV, Sky, etc) for information.

Young people in Castlemilk are in the process of setting up a youth forum with the aim of uniting collectively – no matter what the outcome of the referendum – to stand against benefit sanctions, zero-hours contracts and other attacks on working-class people.

The whole point is that this debate on independence has taken on a life of its own. Initially, as a socialist I was not particularly interested in being involved; I believed it to be a bit of a red herring and a diversion from what was really going on regarding attacks on workers and the rights they have fought for and won, the Bedroom Tax and the general dismantling of welfare provision. But now as a result of this debate, political consiousness has been awakened – which Alex Salmond [the Scottish Nationalist leader] and the like did not expect. There is no going back, no matter the outcome.
Another meeting in Castlemilk on the referendum. Standing room only again
Another meeting in Castlemilk on the referendum. Standing room only again
I see a Yes vote as progressive. It’s a vote against austerity and neoliberal values, and against the whole capitalist state, where every day there is more evidence of its unfairness, corruptness, greed, and inherently inhumane policies.

Afterword by Gabriel Levy. Thanks to Catherine Milligan for this article, which highlights that the discussion in Scottish working class communities is not only about what country they want to live in, but about what sort of country, and about who will take the decisions. The very fact that people are discussing and organising around these issues has the potential to change things, whatever the result of the referendum.
Among socialists that I talk to, whether in England or Scotland, the fear associated with the referendum is the one that Catherine mentions at the start – of nationalism undermining the unity of the workers’ movement. Nationalism is to be feared, of course, but as far as I know – whether in Ukraine, Russia, Scotland or England – the only way to combat nationalism effectively is by strengthening movements around working-class rights, such as those Catherine mentions.

If those movements come out stronger, whatever the result of the referendum, we are in a better position to combat all the odious nationalisms.

Furthermore, a Yes vote would give workers’ movements everywhere the massive fillip of seeing one of the oldest, most durable capitalist states being knocked out of shape. The supposedly God-given power of the London establishment to rule in the way that it decides – which hasn’t been seriously challenged in these islands for the best part of a century – would be disrupted.

Hopefully, that would act as a reminder to working-class people and society as a whole that that establishment is dependent on us. Not the other way round.
That establishment has been thrown into an absolute panic this week by the poll results. It’s funny to watch them writhing. And it’s more serious to remind ourselves that we have the ability to confront them. GL, 10 September 2014.

■ Read “Something incredible is happening in Scotland”, by Paul Mason
■ Watch a speech by Saffron Dickson, 16, at a conference in Glasgow
■ Other stuff about Scotland on People & Nature:
Safety on the North Sea: back to business as usual, by Neil Rothnie (September 2013)
The struggle to organise workers on the North Sea after Piper Alpha
Accuser of capitalism: John Maclean’s speech from the dock, 9 May 1918. (Introduction, the speech from the dock, and Afterword)


  1. Hopeful piece Catherine but the optimism is not something I share. While the young people are saying it is not about nationalism but having a say, I don't see what more of a say they are going to have under a reconstituted Scottish ruling class. Its nationalism will help mask the essence of its agenda. Were this a Left led departure there might be some call for optimism, but it isn't. At least with the Tories they could not masquerade as something else. I think the thrust for independence is driven by the energy of resentment (justifiable grievance) harnessed by the right but completely devoid of any strategy for a more egalitarian Scotland. If people prefer being hungry and Scottish rather than hungry and British, they can make the call. I don't really see much of a difference. In earlier times it was called a bourgeois nationalist revolution or a democratic revolution. We have since learned how it was always tope heavy with the former and extremely light on the latter: plenty of nationalism and little democracy.

    While it might sound heretical to say so, strategically, it might be better for the referendum to fail and for the Left to make a bid to come at it as the hegemon of the independence movement next time round. Because if it does fail rest assured there will be a next time.

  2. Anthony,
    Disagree with your point there. While i agree with your verdict on the s.n.p, i think the only way Scotland can make positive changes is through independence. I currently live in Scotland and have a Scottish parent so have a vested interest in this referendum, and while i take your argument about Scottish politicians being just as corrupt as British or Irish politicians, at least in an independent Scotland there would be more accountability. As it stands Scottish people have there budget etc dictated to them, which can not happen in a just society. There is a big enough grassroot left movement in Scotland to challenge any right wing nationalism. While i support Scottish independence i am not one who thinks it will have any bearing on our political landscape at least not in a positive sense. The orange order in Scotland are threatening violence if there is a yes vote, good to see them abiding by democracy once again.

  3. David,

    I am not opposed to the Scots getting their independence. I think it will be pretty much useless to the mass of Scots and of some benefit to the ruling clique. Will it be a more just and egalitarian society? I don't see how. Ultimately what might be driving it is anti-Tory sentiment rather than anti integrationist.

  4. I am at present watching the big big debate on bbc Scotland and in particular George Galloway. I have turned full circle with that charlatan and now realise he is simply a chancer. Any republican who is duped by his declared love for Ireland and unification etc should take him with a pinch of salt. God help the Palestinians if he is allowed to champion their cause. To paraphrase the boul George: he and Cameron et al are two cheeks of the same arse.

  5. Anthony,
    I don't know if it will be a more just society. The point is it's an opportunity to be so. I am not naive enough to believe politicians bullshit. I feel there is genuine optimism in Scotland just now and i feel it should be supported, whether it amounts to anything is debatable, but we got to keep trying, surely? I don't know about the anti-tory sentiment i think Scots have had enough of all politicians, the worry is keeping any focus that might have materialised during the referendum debate.

  6. David,

    it has the potential to be both more just and more unjust, much like the nationalist Janus Faced sentiment that drives it.

    I can't think of any necessary reason why a genuine optimism should be supported in any situation. The same could be said of a genuine religious optimism. Some consideration should be given to what the optimism is based on.

    Keep trying but not just for the sake of it. Calculate strategically and then try. Otherwise we just go thru the motions. Repeated failure is demoralising.

    Will it protect the Scots from harm? I don't see how it will. There needs to be more than Sinn Fein economics coming out of the Yes camp to make a case for a better society. But if the Scots want independence it is their call. I would much rather see the North of England secede from the UK and join with Scotland. That would be a real crisis of legitimation for the British state.

    I say all this while aware of my having very little nationalist sentiment. I no more feel it should be obligatory than religion. I am suspicious of the caste thrusting either the flag or the cross in our faces and telling us there is something we must do in the name of god or the nation that seems to be to its benefit but not ours.

  7. A.M.

    The flag might be visible as a symbol, but it's peripheral to the YES campaign. The blood and soil nationalists have been around for centuries and virtually no-one takes them seriously.

    The issue for many of us here in Scotland is that we have consistently voted for policies to the left of Westminster governments.

    It is this which makes Scotland a distinct polity.

    However, these votes were cast by people who were aware that they were registering a protest, rather than electing a government. Such is inevitable, given the relatively small size of Scotland within the UK.

    It's likely that an independent Scotland would be somewhere to the right of where many Scots currently see ourselves, but I conclude that this would probably still be to the left of the balance in the rest of the UK.

    There's a masturbatory dimension to many Scots' view of themselves as "socialists", like a teenager still living at home with a Che poster on his bedroom wall. Such politics need to be tested in the real world, and leaving the parental home is likely to lead to maturity and to a deeper level of understanding.

    I don't expect to be financially better off if Scotland becomes independent. If we could vote WHY NOT? that would be my choice, but as the options are restricted to YES and NO, I'll take the one that involves accepting a greater level of responsibility.

  8. RTW,

    much sense in all of that and yet the prism through which I gaze(with no enduring degree of concentration or intellectual rigour) is one of when the dust settles who has the power to do what to whom?

    If Irish nationalism in the South here continues taking us the way it is I might advise my children to start learning German rather than the Irish medium they currently are taught thru!

  9. Anthony,
    What i meant by optimism, is people being optimistic about playing a bigger role in their affairs, as Ramon said greater responsibility. I know you've been around political situations long enough not just to support an agenda without giving it a proper analysis and fair play to you for it. I believe the Scots have a real opportunity to take the bull by the horns here and if the end up with more of the same after a potential yes vote then it'd be on them to react positively, that's what responsibility is all about. I think it's time the Scots took a direct responsibility on their governing.
    When you say will it protect Scots from harm? can added responsibility, accountability be a bad thing? What or who is Janus Faced?

  10. David,

    Janus is the mythical Roman god that looked both backward and forward. When studying many years ago it was always used in courses explaining nationalism: it could either be progressive or reactionary.

  11. Anthony.
    Learning German?
    Would that be a bad thing? I admire Germany. In fact I pretty much wish I was one. Of course that would mean that I would have to carry war Guilt. But it's the most successful country in Europe. It has a protestant North and a Catholic south. It was divided and is now united. It has order, stability and good jobs.
    I wouldn't want to be a German quisling and sell my country out..But I wouldn't resist them. Or the Norwegiens if they want to have a go. Or the Swedes or the Danes.
    I wonder if the Orange Order are viking descent..If so can they pledge alligence to Norway and their $800 Billion dollar soverign wealth fund. And they got a Royal family. And lets face it..From the Norwegien part of the deal.What Country would reject terrortial expansion? Ireland is beautiful and it may have oil/gas.
    And the Norwegiens operate a very clean country..Clean water..clean air. So How about it my Orange chums? Can you get Norway to take in the wee 6. and we'll get the 26 in later?
    We're all vikings after all.Am joking but the point is Can you NOT pick a different state to be Loyal to? One that's competent would be a start(realize that rules out the Free State- whom nobody on here is loyal to anyway)

  12. Ozzy,

    I am at the stage in life where German like any other language is something I would love to waken up speaking but without having to learn.