Brian Monteith: Marching to the sound of a different drum

Pro-independence supporters take to Edinburgh's streets. Picture: Patrick McPartlin
Pro-independence supporters take to Edinburgh's streets. Picture: Patrick McPartlin
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SNP attempts to whip up anti-English feeling have failed, if we count the numbers of Yes marchers, writes Brian Monteith.

Was the Yes campaign’s march for independence on Saturday the mother of all own-goals? With only a meagre 5,000-plus supporters showing their commitment to the cause, the Yes campaign again looks to have revealed its limitations, given encouragement to its opponents and exposed the soft underbelly of its strategy.

On Saturday afternoon some 9,908 other Scots trudged along Edinburgh streets, more in hope than expectation, to attend a gathering where they were parted from an average of £20 without knowing the outcome. They were not listening to Alex Salmond or a host of other political celebrities but instead were hoping for the best as Hibernian and Inverness Caledonian Thistle played out a 2-2 draw. At Tannadice, Dundee United entertained a crowd of 11,512 to watch Hearts put three past the home side without reply.

I describe the attendance of the march for independence as meagre, for that’s what it was. Far more people attend a number of annual Orange Order marches throughout the year, which although not strictly political are to the many who attend them a declaration of their faith in the Union.

It could be said I am comparing lemons with nectarines; that the sweet fruit of football matches, a Saturday afternoon shopping at the local mall or mowing the lawn for the last time this year are not the same thing as the bitter lemon that was Saturday’s march.

I disagree. On many occasions the STUC or other broadly political organisations have sought to hold their marches on a Saturday and have attracted tens of thousands of supporters even though the joys of Scottish football, Marks & Spencer and the Honda sit-on mower were there to be had.

And let’s not forget, the rousing oratory of Alex Salmond was free and predictable while the eclectic choice of Hibs, Hearts and their brethren are expensive and inconsistent.

The reason for this is, I believe, as obvious as a football is a spherical object filled with air: marches are best attended when there is a genuine grievance to protest about. Marches can be positive affairs but only in so much as they are seeking to right a wrong, to offer protest against an injustice or establish solidarity against a common enemy.

On Saturday what the march told us was that not only would far more people prefer to part with their hard-earned money to see probably desultory football, but that the sense of grievance, the burden of injustice and the identification of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as some sort of ogre subjugating us Scots against our wishes is not shared by the majority of our people.

It can be accepted that there would be many nationalists or those electors thinking of voting for independence at Saturday’s football games, shopping at the local Co-op or tending the allotment without negating the argument that the march for independence was a practical flop and a strategic error. My point is simple.

Alex Salmond has spent the best part of the last 30 years of his life trying to nurse grievances between Scots and the rest of our British compatriots, and where they have not existed he has invented them and fomented them so that a gulf between us, and especially the English, would develop.

If that breach had been established, if people had felt as strongly about the injustices of our political settlement as the SNP strategists have hoped for, then they would have made sacrifices to attend the march as they have done previously on issues such as unemployment, war or international debt.

That’s why, in the past, Scots have turned out in huge numbers to protest against high unemployment levels, the Iraq war or the debt burden of the poorest nations before the Gleneagles summit.

This year of 2012 still has another three months to run, but it has already shown how the political future is hard to predict and that the SNP’s strategy is unravelling before Alex Salmond’s eyes. At the beginning of the year, following an unparalleled electoral victory in 2011, Salmond appeared unassailable, but Labour has since found a leader who, in her couthiness, is able to expose the First Minister’s humbug and pomposity that sit side by side with his political acumen and cunning.

It’s not as if Salmond is beyond reproach with the public either, enduring his own personal Osborne moment when he too was booed at the Olympic welcoming for Scottish athletes in Glasgow.

Likewise, George Osborne’s budget was undoubtedly a calamity to be exploited but since then there are now signs that, despite all the doom and gloom from economic predictions there are hard examples of how the economy is turning – with over a million private sector jobs being created since the coalition came to power and both order books and confidence beginning to grow.

Contrast that with John Swinney’s budget last week that within 24 hours was unravelling when the Scottish Parliament’s independent researchers repudiated his claim that he had less cash to spend by showing he had 1 per cent more, that capital spending on schools was not receiving new money but simply money from future years and that local government, far from receiving an improved settlement, was losing out.

The point of the march was clear. To build up so that by the time the third march for independence was taking place it was a mass carnival full to brimming over with a momentum all of its own – signalling to the Scottish public that the time was ripe for independence. It may still happen – but this was no Catalonian demonstration of political will with a million souls expressing themselves. This was a meagre 5,000 no doubt sincere and optimistic supporters.

But there is no protest, for there is no collective grievance, and for future marches to work they will have to have something to protest about. Maybe unemployment going up in Scotland when it’s now going down in the rest of the UK, could be a reason – but then that will have been the fault of the SNP’s dalliance with Plan B economics, and the grievance would then be towards them.