It is something of a tradition, when a radical political movement emerges, to hail the new generation of young people who are rejecting the bad old ways, and trumpet the return of the organised left. When I was a student in the early 2000s, the alter-globalisation and anti-war movements were taken as evidence that my generation were rejecting 1980s “greed is good” values. In 2011, Paul Mason claimed that anti-austerity protests and the Arab Spring were driven by “a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.” Of the independence referendum, Gerry Hassan has written that “Arguments articulated by the establishment and the political Old Guard fail to resonate with a new generation of voter”; Jamie Maxwell, that “radical Scotland has left its ghetto.”
It is fantastic, and hugely exciting, to see young people engage with democracy, to try to change their country for the better. It’s great to see RIC out on the streets . But what really excites me about this referendum campaign is the number of ‘ordinary’ (they don’t deserve that word; they are extraordinary) middle-aged Scots who are politically active for the first time in decades.
It has bothered me ever since my student days that there is a missing generation on the Scottish left. Even at 31, with over a decade of activism under my belt, I am still quite sure that I am nowhere near experienced enough to lead a national political movement. In stable political parties with well-defined career ladders, most activists of my age and below are still being trained and cultivated for leadership by the older cadre.
This process has broken down on the left. The 1980s and early 1990s destroyed the Communist Party and the radical sections of the Labour movement. The full-time career paths in radical politics disappeared. Vast accumulated experience and institutional memory was lost. Most of a generation were defeated, demoralised, and dropped out of politics altogether – facts reflected in the decline of our trade unions, and the destruction of our tenant’s movement.
As a result, there are two main ways to be a full-time radical left activist in today’s Scotland: you can be a student, or you can manage the difficult trick of being on the dole but in good mental health. If you are able to take one of these routes, you are probably from a middle class background, probably don’t have childcare responsibilities, and are probably young.
This is a disaster for the involvement of women, working class people, and middle-aged people – the majority demographics of Scotland.
My first experiences of organising in North Glasgow as a young man brought this sharply home to me. Disillusioned with protest politics, a group of us had turned to building resident’s associations and fighting against social housing demolitions. We had some successes, the removal of Cedar Street high flats from the demolition list being one. We had some failures too – the socially rented flat in Possil that once helped me turn my life around has recently been replaced with a useless patch of turf, awaiting a new property boom so a developer can build a private front and back on it.
From those campaigns I learned that the average person in Glasgow is a defeated Socialist. There is tremendous community spirit, and a belief that the country’s resources should be held in common, but at every public meeting, there is at least one person who has turned up to tell you that they tried this in the 1980s and it won’t work.
What separates the people of Possil from radical students isn’t age or political views, it’s confidence, hope, and the spare time to engage in activism. It is important to face facts: most Scots have never been politically active in their lives. Most Scots don’t have the social capital, the connections, or the accents that grant easy access to power, that make political activism a rewarding activity.
If we don’t change that, the young people who have come to politics for the first time through this referendum campaign will drift away, forced to stop by tiring working weeks and the demands of family life.
So for me, the most exciting thing about this campaign has been seeing older people who are politically active for the first time in years: the Yes Possil member from Yorkshire who is on the sick and has leafleted every house on his estate; my friend who comments to refute every single post on the UK government’s “You Decide” Facebook page; both of my parents, who are leafleting and canvassing with their local groups.
When I look at the list of Yessers on my Facebook, what stands out is that their demographics – all ages, classes and genders – reflect Scotland’s population far more closely than any political campaign I have ever been involved in before.
It’s amazing when young people get involved in politics. It’s fantastic that Scotland’s radical left is finding its feet again. But, just this once, here’s to the thousands of folk who are in no political party, who work long hours, look after their kids or grandkids in the evening, and still manage to give a wee bit of their time each week to transform our country. When it comes time for us to hand out medals, they should be first in line.