It’s a quarter after 6 and I’m standing in a line a block long outside a nightclub in downtown Glasgow to see Tommy Sheridan (@citizentommy) – a well known socialist organizer and activist – speak. The is the last of 110 speaking engagements like it that he’s done since January and YouTube footage of some of the others has drawn a firestorm of both positive and negative comments and hundreds of thousands of views. Tommy is interesting because he’s famous for his writing and speaking in a way that just doesn’t happen in the U.S. Noam Chomsky can sell millions of books, but you’d never see NBC or Fox invite him on to talk about why we can afford to bomb Syria when we’re cutting budgets for everything else.
Inside, the mood is electric – the hall is so packed people end up sitting in the aisles. As the event is about to start we are informed that there are another 500+ people lined up outside who can’t fit in the space, so they’ll be cutting the length of the talk in half and have a second meeting after for all the people waiting outside.
Can you even imagine having a thousand people from a single city show up on a Tuesday night to listen to someone who isn’t a high-ranking elected official talk about politics? I’ve never seen anything like it, the closest reference point I have is descriptions of Emma Goldman and others like her doing speaking tours. This is what a country with 97% voter registration and a proportional representation system that people feel actually represents them looks like.
Tommy is part of the Radical Independence Campaign, a coalition of anti-capitalist groups and individuals from around Scotland who support independence but are not associated with any of the political parties. He’s been openly and vocally critical of Alex Salmond and the SNP, suggesting that a post-independence Scotland will move well to the left of the SNP’s more business-friendly policies .
Tonight though he makes a point of defending the SNP against some of the latest claims from Labour. In particular, Labour and the no campaign have said that the SNP is lying to people by saying the NHS (National Health Service) is no longer safe in the UK because even though it’s being privatized and cut to shreds in England the NHS in Scotland is devolved. Tommy points out that under the Barnett formula (by which funds returned to Scotland from taxes collected by Westminster are determined) money sent to Scotland for the NHS is determined based on a percentage of the money spent in England, so if England cuts spending Scotland automatically loses funding without being consulted. “Do they think we’re daft?!” he practically shouts.
Think what you like about Socialism, Tommy Sheridan is a pro with serious rock-star mojo. The man works a crowd like a preacher at a revival meeting, he’s passionate, articulate, and holds nothing back. The content is equal parts encouragement and praise for how far the Yes campaign has come, a call to action to get people mobilized, rants about the absurdity of the Better Together campaign, and talks about the world he wants to see post-independence. The crowd loves it and he has to keep stopping because of all the cheering and clapping.
Tommy also makes a point of saying that this movement isn’t anti-English and it’s not abandoning English workers to the mercies of the Tories (as George Galloway and other leftists who’ve argued against independence have claimed). Instead, he argues that Scotland will be an inspiration for popular movements in England and revitalize them as people see a successful Scotland that values social justice, protects its national health service, and re-invests in the parts of the economy that create real wealth and not just financial services that produce nothing. “We’re not abandoning our brothers and sisters in England, we’re leading them… and they’re rooting for us!”
One last point he makes is that this movement would not have been possible without Social Media. Like many in the Yes campaign, Tommy believes that the bias of the mainstream media and the BBC in particular has been overt and systematic. Based on what I’ve read and seen I’d have to agree with them. The independence movement has thrived despite this through it’s strategic use of Social Media and Tommy proclaims at one point that “when we win this it will be the victory of Social Media over Corporate Media.”
That’s a refrain we’ve heard before and one I expect we’ll hear again and again. Stewart, who I talked to this morning, said much the same thing – though he was quick to point out that all the Yes campaign’s Social media work has been designed to drive and support real life engagement and is not a substitute for going out and knocking on doors. That’s a critical piece that I think many activists in the USA miss – it’s not enough to post an event on Facebook and invite your friends. That’s called a social scene – not a movement. The Scots are canny enough to understand this and have mobilized huge numbers of people to get out in the real world and talk to their neighbors and then used social media as a tool to connect all those real-world activists and disseminate information.
When the meeting is over Tommy gets a sustained standing ovation and then passes the mic to two other local activists who have announcements – one makes a plea for everyone to stay calm and respect their neighbors decisions in the event of a No vote and the other talks about how ship yard layoffs are affecting workers there and points out that the ship yard that Labour MP’s have recently appeared on TV saying will be put in jeapordy by independence is actually scheduled to be downsized and shut down by the UK government, which draws boos and hisses from the crowd.
As I walk to the train station, I stop in at a shop to grab a quick sandwich. The clerk sees the Yes campaign sign I’ve taken as a souvenir and asks if I’ve just come from George Square – apparently there was a huge Yes rally there at the same time as Tommy Sheridan’s speech and activists completely filled the square. He wanted to go but had to work and has a teenager’s eager enthusiasm for the changes he sees around him.
I thank him, grab my BLT, and head back to Edinburgh. My partner, Maia, arrives in the morning and we’re going to drive up into some of the smaller communities through the middle and north of Scotland to see the campaigns there, so I’ll be up again early to go meet her.
Tonight I am exhausted but elated – a feeling I think is shared by many here.
Edit: I found video of the speech so you can see it for yourselves: