LAST weekend I returned to my second spiritual home, Bilbao in Northern Spain’s Basque Country. I lived there as a student, absorbing its politics, its alternative culture of punks and squats, and its modernist landscape. Long before 2014, my familiarity with Basque culture undoubtedly shaped my passion for Scottish independence as an internationalist and progressive cause.

Bilbao has many parallels with Glasgow, my first home. Its major industries were shipbuilding, mining and steel; hulking ships were constructed on the banks of the Nervion, by workers just as proud and rebellious as those on Clydeside. As with my home town, when these industries shut down they left a dark and heavily polluted shell that never quite overcame its social problems. Like Glasgow, Bilbao’s “regeneration” took a cultural form: many will be aware of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim. However, like Glasgow, these artsy glosses, impressive though they are, hide lasting social injustices and a fierce culture of political resistance.

These similarities appeal to me, but so do those Basque experiences that are completely alien to Scotland. Only a few miles from Bilbao lies Gernika, the town that was made synonymous with human cruelty by Picasso. His painting of the same name depicts the town’s bombardment by the Nazi Luftwaffe on General Franco’s bidding, which killed more than 1,500 defenceless civilians. Spanish nationalist governments, even after Franco, have subjected Basque people to vicious repression. The Basque armed resistance has receded but still today, political prisoners are held by Madrid thousands of miles from their home, often in solitary confinement with no visitors or support.

There’s no doubt that ordinary people in Scotland have suffered many tragedies at the hands of the British state – who hasn’t? But our Scottish ruling elites were privileged members of the British Empire project in all of its brutality. That’s why nationalism in this country never amounted to a movement for national liberation.

So, it’s difficult for us to appreciate how deeply Spanish state oppression cuts into the Basque people. Ireland probably has a deeper affinity with the Basque Country in this respect. When we get independence in Scotland, we will do so without being forced to resort to bullets. That’s a luxury most nations don’t get.

I returned to the Basque country far more knowledgeable about my history than when I first visited. Indeed, I was speaking about Scotland, at an event called Alternative Worlds, at the invitation of the Basque trade union LAB. This trade union highlights another key contrast with Scotland. The second letter in LAB stands for “Abertzale”, a uniquely Basque word which is often mistranslated as “nationalist” but is actually closer to “liberation”. Specifically, it means liberation for the Basque working class.

In Scotland, social class and nationhood overlap to an extent. Support for independence is associated with a certain culture of working-class identity. But that’s where it ends. The majority of unions remain officially aligned to the Labour Party, which has been slow to abandon its routine Britishness. For Basques, this would be deeply confusing. Why would Scotland’s working class allow their unions to remain so wedded to the state?

THERE are also more subtle but equally important differences. Trade unionism – and feminism – are far more grassroots in Bilbao. Even the basics of social interaction are different. The implicit rules of deference that we take for granted simply don’t make sense on the Basque Left. At lunch, we are sat in a communal dining space at the political festival, where audience, speakers, trade union leaders and politicians all eat together, at huge canteen-style tables. General Secretaries mingle with ordinary members; activists rub shoulders with professors.

Perhaps spotting my culture shock, delegates asked me about Scotland’s trade union movement. I’m glad to say I was able to praise our recent accomplishments around precarious work, particularly things like the Better than Zero campaign. Youth unemployment and shit jobs are even bigger problems in Bilbao than in Glasgow, and we swapped ideas about the stunts and protests we use to draw attention to the problem.

Basque activists were also keen to learn from our movements here like Radical Independence and Women for Independence. I was frankly shocked by how much they knew about these campaigns. Some activists in Bilbao seem to know more about Radical Independence than I do!

Still, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that Scotland has as much, if not more, to learn from them. There are problems that come from the longstanding Basque national liberation struggle. And their nationalism is by no means unconditionally feminist and working-class, but these strands are vibrant and strong: their campaigns are undoubtedly embedded in everyday institutions in a way we should envy.

Basques, especially on the left, have done their homework on the whole idea of “emancipation”. They don’t shirk the feminist label and they talk openly about the working class: these are natural parts of supporting independence. Basque radicals have learned that if national liberation is to mean anything, it will involve a national side and a liberation side. Activists for independence thus feel the need to lead society in dismantling old power structures.

Our movement has made great strides, compared to the tribal and often stale Scottish politics it inherited. But there’s still a peevishness and a reluctance to step on toes when it comes to talking about elitism that exists in Scotland. Meeting the activists in Bilbao again has convinced me that we need a grown-up, inclusive politics that touches every part of the movement. We need to challenge class and gender inequalities that exist in Scottish society in the here and now, rather than simply saying “after independence”.

That’s partly what I hope RISE can do in 2016 – use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to fight a war against poverty and alienation, and to build a strong socialist and feminist campaign, supporting independence and fighting for a “liberation” for working-class women and men who suffer at the hands of wealthy land owners, bad bosses, rip-off landlords or corrupt councils.

The world is watching. But our movement won’t release the built-up potential in Scotland until we embrace the authentic meaning of emancipating society. That’s what Basque radicals can teach Scotland; I hope we’re willing to learn.