Referendum marks return of Scottish street politics – whatever the outcome

Energy created by the grass-roots independence campaign has changed political landscape

GLASGOW, Scotland Something extraordinary is happening in Pollok.

The sprawling housing scheme on Glasgow's south side is one of the most deprived communities in Europe. One in four residents is on out-of-work benefits, and more than one-third of children there grow up in poverty.

It is a place where just getting by is often a challenge, and many people have little time for politics. Just 39 percent voted in the last Scottish elections.

But this time, with Thursday's referendum on Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom, it promises to be different. On Sunday at least 44 people gathered at the back of a bus station for a mass canvass organized by the Radical Independence Campaign.

Shannon Neill, 17, got involved a few days ago.

"I've been campaigning for the past week, and the passion and the vigor I am hearing from people of all different ages and nationalities as well is quite astounding," she says. 

Another activist described the level of engagement in the community as a democratic revolution. For the first time, people believe their vote matters and it can make a difference.

Radical campaign

The Radical Independence Campaign is part of the biggest grass-roots movement that Scotland has ever seen.

Craig Paterson, a 27-year-old student with a mop of blond hair and a bottle of Irn Bru — a soda popular in Scotland — sticking out his jacket pocket, describes it as a broad-based left-wing movement that includes greens, trade unionists and anti-war activists.

"On days like today, on mass canvasses, we have had anything up to 1,000 people out across the country," Paterson says.

The pro-independence side is feeling increasingly optimistic about the outcome of Thursday's vote. As the group breaks into teams and starts walking, they are hailed by an elderly passer-by who wants to tell them why he is voting yes. "England should not be, in this day and age, telling us what to do," he says.

A blue Volkswagen van drives alongside the marchers with the 1980s hit "One Great Thing" by Dunfermline folk rockers Big Country blaring from speakers. Paterson says the yes campaign has rented six such vehicles for every constituency to help get the vote on polling day.

However, the response from residents is initially mixed. In particular, it is clear that pensioners are not receptive to the message.

Douglas Doig, who describes himself as a left-leaning accountant, says, "Every time a retired woman opens the door it's a no. But it's fine. They are very smiley about it."

A householder tells the campaigners, "My heart is saying one thing, and my head is saying another. Unless I hear some real hard facts, I'm voting no."

Reinforcing the message

But it becomes clear as the afternoon goes on that Pollok is swinging toward yes. The canvass returns at the end of the session show 278 who will vote yes, 100 who will vote no and 74 who don't know. If there is a yes majority on polling day, communities such as this is where it will come from.

The message was reinforced by a packed public meeting at a local primary school on Monday evening. More than 90 people turned out to hear veteran nationalist Jim Sillars make the case for independence.

With a voice rasping from speeches night after night in towns and villages across the country, he says, "I've been going around Scotland stirring up the working class and telling you how good you are."

He preached old-time socialist religion to an audience that wanted to listen, arguing with passion that independence would transform Scottish society, shifting power not only from London to Edinburgh but also away from the elites and back to working people.

"I have been vilified for what I said about BP, the banks and the businessmen. I don't take back a single word," says Sillars.

It was the first political meeting that 28-year-old local resident Heather Brown ever attended. She says she doesn't normally vote, but she knows this one could make a difference to the future. "I would rather come and hear for myself than sit and watch people on Facebook," she says.

At the beginning of the evening, she was undecided and wanted answers to questions like whether Scotland would keep the pound as a currency if it becomes independent. She listened intently throughout the meeting, concentrating hard and not joining in with the applause.

By the end of the night, she had made up her mind. "F--- voting no", she said. "I couldn't vote no."

Social revolution

The referendum campaign has seen the return of street politics to Scotland, but it has been given a 21st century twist by the innovative use of social media.

Zara Gladman, who is better known as Lady Alba, had the audience in stitches on Monday evening with her version of "Bad Romance," which pokes fun at unionists. It has received more than 112,000 hits on YouTube.

"It was quite overwhelming when I saw the number of hits it was getting," she says. "I don't think there has ever been a campaign like this where people have been able to use social media and the Internet so effectively to make their voices heard."

Whatever the outcome on Thursday, the energy created by the grass-roots independence campaign has changed politics in Scotland, and the politicization of a new generation will have an impact that reaches far beyond the referendum.

John Davidson of the Radical Independence Campaign says they are already looking at plans to continue the organization.

"Radical Independence will continue because we don't just want to vote yes and hope that the politicians will sort out our society. We know that this needs to be a participatory process, and we are not going anywhere after Sept. 18."

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