An Interview with Peter Cannell and Alan Armstrong from Radical Independence Edinburgh and Megan Bente Bishop from Living Rent’s Edinburgh Branch.
Interview by Rufus Pickles. Illustration by Justine White.
Walking into Augustine United Church in the centre of Edinburgh on a bleak and blustery evening in January, I remember being struck by the ingenuity and frankness of the discussion that was under way. Members of the city’s branch of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) were debating a hefty policy package from the pro-independence thinktank Common Weal on the need for a Scottish Green New Deal. No one was under any illusions. With the Labour Party crushingly defeated a month before, a purely self-interested prime minister in Downing Street and a rather lacklustre approach from the SNP, it was up to the Scottish people themselves to do their bit for the planet.
A few months later towards the end of Scotland’s lockdown I encountered a similarly candid and resolute platform for grassroots activism in the form of the tenant’s union Living Rent. Over a 40 minute zoom call, new members were being told about how they could counter the formidable power of Edinburgh’s exploitative landlords through the age-old practices of collective bargaining and group solidarity. The meeting seemed especially prescient given that around a week earlier a bloc of SNP and Tory MSPs, many of whom were landlords themselves, had banded together to defeat a series of proposals to help renters through Covid-19. Again it seemed like it was up to the people to fight for justice because the powers that be didn’t seem all that interested.
In light of these experiences the fundamental importance of movement-led politics in the city became abundantly clear. With student politics often seeming like an insulated bubble caught up in what some would see as the trivialities of stone monuments, and most political parties leaving much to be desired, it felt imperative that at least some attention be directed elsewhere. Wanting to find out more and shed greater light on Edinburgh’s compelling culture of left activism I spoke to Peter Cannell and Alan Armstrong from RIC and Megan Bente Bishop from Living Rent.
What is the Radical Independence Campaign, what makes it ‘radical’ and what differentiates you from the more mainstream groups in the Yes movement like the Scottish National Party?
PC: The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) includes lots of people like myself who would not think of themselves primarily, or at all as nationalists, but who have a vision of an independent Scotland which would be a progressive step forward. It’s not because we see anything particularly special about Scotland. It’s because of the nature of the British state that we’re part of at the moment which has so much baggage to do with empire and colonialism- you’ve only got to listen to Boris Johnson this week to see how that manifests. On one level that’s just words but it has significant effects on politics and how people understand their place in society. A radical independent Scotland represents both a shift towards independence but also towards greater democracy, local accountability and radical left politics generally. It wouldn’t just be good for Scotland- it’d be good for the rest of these islands as well.
I’ve sometimes been very impressed by SNP politicians. I remember being in George Square at an anti-racist rally two or three years ago and the minister Humza Yousaf was speaking from the platform. He made one of the best speeches that I’ve heard about creating an inclusive Scotland and he spoke to everyone in the crowd which is really important. Nevertheless, what underpins that is also a Scottish National Party which is deeply wedded to mainstream orthodoxy in terms of economics.
They’re relatively good at talking to an audience. For example they regularly portray Scotland as a world leader in climate action- but if you actually look at the practical steps that are being taken over these issues they’re all being put off to 2040, 2045 as well as leaving it to big business and the market to take the decisive steps. One of the things that RIC tries to do is to argue that a really thought through analysis of what a different independent Scotland could be like won’t be based on the status-quo- especially not in terms of winning hearts and minds. One of the really exciting things about the 2014 referendum was that the biggest number of people voted ever- and the reason why they did was because they thought there was some point in it.
AA: To summarise what the differences are between RIC and the SNP I’d highlight two things: the SNP are Scottish nationalists and we are Scottish internationalists. For example during RIC’s referendum campaign we didn’t just conduct our campaign in Scotland. We had speakers that went to Greece, the Basque country and to Catalonia. I spoke in Dublin and West Belfast and other speakers were down in England. The other thing is that the SNP accepts the existing political order and works within it. We’re republican and by that we don’t mean that we just want to get rid of the queen some time in the future. We think that sovereignty lies with the people in the here and now. The SNP accepts that sovereignty lies with Westminster and they just push a bit harder to get a bit more devolved. Having said that we do have SNP members- people like George Kerevan who’s an ex-MP. People in the SNP who see the shortcomings of it are more than welcome in RIC. I don’t think the SNP can deliver independence in its own terms- particularly when you’ve got the sort of government we’ve got now. Even when the SNP win 70% of the seats in the Holyrood election next year I don’t see Boris Johnson saying he’ll back down and allow another referendum. So you have to create a movement that says it doesn’t depend on what Westminster will concede.
Students today are overwhelmingly left-wing and in the last election helped left of centre parties like Labour, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru win most of the UK’s student seats. Should Edinburgh students throw their weight behind RIC’s activism and if so what’s the best way to get involved?
PC: RIC reached a level of engagement and influence that exceeded our expectations in 2014. In the week after the 2014 referendum two kinds of things happened: one was a huge move into political parties which took everybody by surprise including the political parties. Lots of young people who had been active in RIC moved into political parties at that point. Some of them though didn’t move into political parties and Edinburgh RIC was for example the originator of Living Rent. There was a period when we were thinking: how do we keep the sense and radicalism of the referendum campaign going? How do we keep that campaign alive? People came up with all kinds of ideas like working groups and went off to see what happened in the world. Some of those things came to nothing and some of them became really quite important organisations- Living Rent was one of them.
I would qualify that we have a challenge right now to remould the case for independence. The whole debate around independence has changed and has become more fractious in the mainstream. The left position has probably weakened and to make RIC relevant again for people in general as well as students and other young people we do have some work to do. I personally feel impatient about that and think it’s possible to do more than one thing at once. I do a lot of campaigning around the climate with groups like Extinction Rebellion which involve a lot of young people- most of whom are actually in favour of Scottish independence. My view which is probably reflected more widely among RIC activists is that there needs to be a coming together of the campaigns. For example if we want the Scottish government to take the steps that are necessary on the climate we need to have the social weight to push them out of their comfort zone. At the moment they’re sticking to the idea that we need to get every scrap of oil out of the North Sea despite the fact that it’s becoming completely uneconomic. What this all requires is a shift in emphasis amongst some climate activists and a shift amongst some RIC ones too.
Is Covid-19 helping or hindering the movement for independence?
PC: I think on this I’d probably go with Devi Sridhar, the public health professor from Edinburgh university, who was asked the same question. The answer is basically yes but it’s not that the Scottish government has done a particularly great job. It’s just that by comparison with Westminster the bar has been set extraordinarily low. People generally have a bit more trust in Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP than they do with Boris Johnson.
AA: Within the independence movement it has actually strengthened the Nicola Sturgeon wing. In many ways she has said we don’t want to talk about independence; we want to deliver on Covid. This has gone along with an increase in people’s voting intentions with 55% saying they support independence. A lot of that shift will be people who were recent unionists who now think the SNP are not so bad. It could well deliver a bigger vote for them next year.
What is a tenants union and why should you be part of one?
MBB: A tenants union, not unlike your trade union, is a collective means for tenants to tackle the power imbalances that exist between tenants and their landlord. We are a democratic organisation and are run by tenants for tenants. We aim to build power through a number of means; predominantly ‘member defence’ (supporting our members through disputes with their landlord or letting agent), as well as through our campaigns, and use a number of tactics including direct action, outreach, or educational sessions. You should get involved because we’re stronger together when tackling these structural inequalities, as a collective, we have more of a chance of successfully achieving housing justice for those of us who are renting.
One of your main campaigns is to establish ‘Rent Control Zones’ in the city and to pressure Edinburgh City Council for action. What are these zones, how is the campaign faring and how cooperative has the council been?
MBB: We have been campaigning for rent controls since our formation in 2014. As a response to our campaign, the Scottish Government set out the legislation for local councils to designate ‘Rent Pressure Zones’ which would serve to limit increases if local authorities could prove that rents were rising by ‘too much’ in these zones and that this was causing ‘undue hardship on tenants’. However, no measures exist which can effectively prove this. Despite councils expressing interest in establishing Rent Pressure Zones, none exist because of the failures of the legislation. Regardless of how cooperative councils may be with our demands, the legislation does not allow them to limit rent increases. Even if RPZ could be implemented, we don’t think they would be effective. RPZ would only serve to limit increases within tenancies, Our campaign for rent controls is a little different, we want rent controls which bring rents down, and also that work to improve the quality of accommodation that is rented by incentivising landlords to maintain and repair their portfolios. No time has this been more pressing than now, and so our campaign has been gathering significant interest. Our petition is at nearly 20,000 signatures and we have attended countless meetings with MSPs, party members, and other organisations to discuss our proposals. More work needs to be done though! We have linked rent controls to our National Campaign to protect tenants throughout the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. The more people to get involved the better.
Rent controls often get a bad press from economists and politicians - the usual argument deployed against them is that they reduce market supply. What’s your response/rebuttal to this?
MBB: We hear this day in day out, and there is no proof that this is the case. For example, in continental Europe, some of the most heavily-regulated Private Rented Sectors are the largest, for example Germany. We often hear that landlords threaten to leave the sector if rent controls were introduced, and we doubt this would be the case. But even if they did, it is not as if the house itself would disappear if the landlord sells it. The property, if no longer viable to be rented by one landlord, could be sold to another who would let this at a reasonable price, or it could go to a household that is currently stuck in the private rented sector who may finally be able to buy their own home. If the private rented market shrinks, this could be a good thing for our housing market. As it stands, private rented accommodation tends to be of the lowest quality and is the worst sector to be stuck in, so it could frankly do with shrinking unless regulation were to improve this.
At the beginning of the summer, the Scottish parliament voted down a range of measures to help renters through Covid-19 and the years ahead. These included establishing a Hardship fund, freezing rents for two years and removing rent liabilities for tenants in acute need. What can we do to fight for housing justice in light of this and how can we pressure the SNP/Scottish
government on this?
MBB: If you haven’t already, join your tenants union! In Scotland, it’s us, down south it’s either ACORN or London Renters Union. As I have already said, as a collective, we are stronger. Also, write to your MSPs and candidates in your area, attend online surgeries, encourage your friends and loved ones to take part. With the elections for Scottish Parliament coming up next year, this is vital. We need rent controls and better protections for tenants in party manifestos so we can hold those elected to protect us to account.