In the Decade of Dissent, Scotland was shaken by grass root campaigns in the north, south, east and west of the nation; in cities, towns, and countryside. There were campaigns against school closures, housing stock corruption, poll tax enforcement, new motorways, nuclear weapons and much more. Inevitably, given Labour’s dominance in Scotland much of this campaigning took place in Labour heartlands. With every arrest, strip search or court appearance of social justice activists, Labour was increasingly seen as part of Scotland’s democratic problem.
Dissenters in Scotland were loud, colourful and utterly disrespectful as much as too each other as to Scotland’s elite. A lot of this glitter and noise came from environmentalists and anarchists who played a large, if still unsung part, in Scotland’s raucous journey to home rule. Environmentalists introduced to Scotland new tactics in non-violent direct action, notably the lock on which was to be used to great effect in many grass roots campaigns and in anti-nuclear protests.
Anarchists brought their years of experience in protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in Scotland, through social welfare advice clinics, naming and shaming abusive social welfare officers, anti-racism actions and creating autonomous centres in occupied buildings. Anarchist and environmentalist forms of resistance and organisation had a huge impact on those of us who came from a traditional socialist (whether Labour or SNP) way of thinking and campaigning.
Feminists and gay activists had long campaigned against the exclusively and abusively hetro male dominated culture and politics in Scotland. As well as bringing in their own activists and networks, feminists and gay activists also provided a well needed critique of other campaigners, including socialists, anarchists and environmentalists.
Whether in protest camps, community halls or Autonomy Centres in occupied buildings there was plenty of music from the likes of Oi Polloi, Block o Vomit, Cora Bissett and countless other Scottish and UK bands. Other art forms included dance, art, sculpture, stand-up comedy, poetry and prose in English, Scots and Gaelic. Some of the most beautiful and powerful poetry, prose and plays came from the Edinburgh writer Sandie Craigie, who as well as being an activist and mother was Assistant Editor of Rebel Inc. magazine set up in 1992 by Kevin Williamson. Publications like Justice/Cothrom which I helped edit for the Glasgow Anarchist Federation mixed comedy, scurrilous character assassinations and politics to create links and support for campaigns across Scotland.
There were other more mainstream groups whose members also played a part in those years. Scottish CND provided vital support and logistics for the activists at Faslane Peace Camp; whilst members of Strathclyde Elderly Forum brought years of experience they had in quietly lobbying the political elites on behalf of Scotland’s elder community, they also had considerable knowledge, ideas and history to share. Many also involved themselves in campaigns and protests against the road building schemes in Glasgow, to the confusion of police who found themselves having to arrest granny.
It would be an injustice to all these people to use hindsight to impose a unitary political philosophy on the campaigns of the 1990s. The campaigns were blessed with fulsome discussion and debate, some of which evolved into the creation of different political groupings whilst the others transformed into community groups which fostered local pride and skills. But a common understanding did evolve that was eventually shared by nearly all Scottish activists: Whilst much of the economic and social troubles besetting Scotland had their origin in a right wing London government, they had been exacerbated by the actions of the political elite in Scotland.
But the Decade of Dissent was not a nationalist revolt. For one thing, Scotland’s grass roots activists and supporters were inspired and emboldened by the environmentalist campaigns in England and eagerly invited them into their communities. English dissidents (as well as French, American, German, etc.) taught Scots dissidents the skills needed to defy Labour power. But skills were not enough. Local knowledge was provided by women and men who had been supporters or members of the Labour Party all their lives. They knew the weaknesses and strengths of the machine confronting activists. As the campaigning went on, most but not all of these people would leave the labour party, some joining the SNP, while many more became the backbone of the emerging Scottish Socialist Party.
While the SNP leadership remained divided and confused about what was happening in Scotland, many nationalist activists and supporters had no such qualms. They campaigned, they protested and they took part in actions. As SNP activists were reintroducing Social Justice in the nationalist movement, so Labour party activists were carrying the flame of the ILP into the Scottish Socialist Party. (It should be noted, however, that some activists remained in the Labour party to try keep the embers of social justice burning there. Indeed following the 1999 Scottish Assembly election it seemed for a moment as if Scottish Labour's radical traditions were about to enjoy a renaissance).
As the decade rolled on it became ever more obvious that blaming English Tories was not only pointless and racist but entirely missed the point. Scotland’s problems were a product of a corrupt and arrogant Scottish political culture. Responsibility for our problems lay in Scotland not in Westminster. Equally the solution to our problems lay in Scotland regardless of who was in power in London. In effect dissidents in Scotland lived and acted as if they were already in an independent country.
However, acting and living in such away raised its own questions. These questions remain as relevant today as in the nineties and arguably are the most important legacy of the Decade of Dissent. In summary the questions are: What form of governance should Scotland have? Would any Scottish parliament be better at protecting basic rights than a UK one? Does the very nature of parliaments (regardless of whether they be left wing, right wing, democratically elected or not) demand that there be elites and there be losers?
Now read Part Ten: The Scottish Constitutional Convention
All these blogs can be read from beginning at: Social Justice & Scottish Independence
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