Euan McColm: Flag-waving protest is counter productive for the SNP

THERE were few things my late friend Eddie enjoyed more than a protest. He couldn’t get enough of them.A leftie of the old school, Eddie loved a banner and a chant. If he saw an injustice, he took to the streets.
Pro-independence supporters march in Edinburgh on September 21, 2013Pro-independence supporters march in Edinburgh on September 21, 2013
Pro-independence supporters march in Edinburgh on September 21, 2013

But, when it came to his expectations of what a demonstration might achieve, he was a realistic fellow. Sometimes, he wasn’t even sure a protest was the right way to go about things, at all.

Take, for example, the marches that preceded 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. I recall a Saturday that summer when Yes-voting Eddie called me from his Edinburgh home. His “comrades” he said, were getting awfully excited about the number of people gathered at Yes rally that afternoon. “They think,” he said, “it’s in the bag. They’re so wrong.”

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What Eddie understood was that while many thousands had indeed gathered in the streets on that afternoon to proclaim their support for independence, millions has not. Furthermore, he told me, he wasn’t at all sure that these campaigners were going to win over new supporters by clogging up the city when people wanted to do some Saturday shopping.

A great many supporters of Scottish independence are fans of a march. But, like Eddie once did, I wonder who they think their actions are impressing.

Look at plans from All Under One Banner group which has, in recent years, led a number of parades through the streets of Scotland’s cities, for example. Last week, the organisation - which is supported by a number of senior SNP politicians who have joined its marches - announced a bizarre plan to protest outside Queen Elizabeth House, a new UK Government building in Edinburgh which will provide office space for more than 3,000 civil servants. This, declared AUOB, was a “colonial building”, part of a “massive overlordship initiative”.

This gathering, warned the organisation, would be one of several targeted protests.

Back in 2014, when flag-waving Scottish nationalists gathered to shout at the BBC’s headquarters in Glasgow, the then First Minister Alex Salmond - utterly consumed with fury that journalists had dared try to interrogate the fanciful claims he was making about the ease with which an independent Scotland might be established - described their behaviour as a “joyous” expression of public opinion.

It was no such thing. It was ugly, unpleasant and fuelled by paranoia. And it was utterly self-defeating.

While hundreds demanded the sacking of journalists they disliked, Yes campaign strategists I spoke with were conflicted. On the one hand, said one, it would be a better use of their time for these protestors to go out and knock some doors for us. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want them knocking doors for you.

Why, I wonder, do those planning the All Under One Banner protest at Queen Elizabeth House think this is the way to win hearts and change minds? If they go ahead, they will look thuggish and unreasonable (there is recent filmed evidence that people with flags descending in fury on government buildings is a bad look this season), and they will intimidate people trying to go about their jobs. Will Scottish independence be won by frightening clerical assistants? I think not.

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Yes campaigners would do well to listen to SNP MSP Tom Arthur, whose reaction to the AUOB announcement of a protest suggested a degree of frustration. “This,” he tweeted, “is what happens when folk get high on their own supply of historically illiterate nonsense. Scotland is not a colony. Offices for civil servants do not betoken imperial ‘overlordship’. At any time, though particularly in the middle of a pandemic, this just looks unhinged.”

When it comes to the constitutional question, the SNP has enough on its plate. Nicola Sturgeon, while she has repeatedly stated her belief that Indyref2 should take place soon, has no authority to hold one. That power resides with the UK Government.

The frustration of enthusiastic nationalists over this truth is perfectly understandable but channelling that frustration into angry protests is a recipe for chaos.

As Tom Arthur points out, Scotland is not a colony. The SNP’s entire strategy over recent years has carefully avoided talk of oppressors and settlers and all that dangerously provocative nonsense. Rather, the party’s message has been that an independent Scotland would be a good and co-operative friend to England.

I do not think it unreasonable to suggest it is this more measured tone rather than the screams of the Bravehearts that has persuaded many who were once fiercely opposed to independence to support it. The people who gather in their hundreds to shout at buildings are the people who always held the SNP back. Nicola Sturgeon and others - notably former Westminster leader and now Holyrood candidate, Angus Robertson, who toured the country, meeting with local constituency officials, and explaining the party’s desire to woo rather than harangue pro-Union Scots - have expended a great deal of effort in changing the SNP’s image.

The leader’s insistence that her party’s is a civic nationalism can only be undermined by angry crowds protesting outside office blocks.

Of course, the zealots will go ahead, I’m sure, convinced that they have right on their side. But when they turn up outside Queen Elizabeth House, Nicola Sturgeon will despair because, while hundreds of nationalists spend their afternoon shouting at a building, millions of other Scots - including plenty who will be wavering over whether to support independence - will be doing something altogether less deranged.



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