Last Saturday, as a dismal combination of low cloud and rain loured over the UK, the people of Scotland were called upon to witness two striking displays of flag-waving patriotism, in London and Glasgow; although the difference between them, in scale, politics and prominence, could hardly have been more striking.
The first, of course, was the coronation of King Charles III at Westminster, a Union flag-draped global spectacle with a nine-figure price-tag, backed by the whole remaining might of the British state, and viewed not only by millions worldwide, but by scores of thousands lining the processional route, many of them waving little Union Jacks.
And the second was the All Under One Banner march for Scottish independence, from Kelvingrove to Glasgow Green; a grassroots initiative by mostly left-leaning independence enthusiasts which probably cost a few thousand pounds to organise, and had an attendance variously estimated somewhere between 3,000 (Police Scotland) and 20,000 (the organisers). The sun shone briefly, the cloud rolled in, rain fell, and Alex Salmond spoke; and the independence march too came swathed in its flag of choice, in this case the Scottish Saltire.
In truth, though, these two events had one more uncomfortable feature in common; in that neither was remotely as representative of the nation, however defined, as its friends and supporters wanted to claim. For all the near-desperate coronation boosterism about a mood of national rejoicing projected by the BBC in particular, a large YouGov poll published earlier this week reported that 78 per cent of British citizens did nothing to celebrate the coronation, compared with 19 per cent who did.
The spectacle itself was far from joyful, given the sorrowful countenance of the grumpy 74-year old at the centre of events, and the weirdly tasteless display of wealth it entailed, at a time of major economic crisis for millions of families. All in all, it seems likely that those convinced that last Saturday’s event represented some kind of inclusive new start for the UK, celebrated by happy and united citizens across the land, are mightily deceiving themselves; not least in ignoring the substantial evidence of even less enthusiasm in Scotland, where bunting and street parties were largely absent.
And if King Charles looked like a melancholy monarch leading his kingdom down a historic cul-de-sac of retro-nationalism, then sadly something of the same atmosphere hung around Alex Salmond’s appearance at Glasgow Green, despite the good cheer of most of those present. Welcoming the crowd to the rally, the writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch said that the event was “just like the good old days”, presumably referring to the referendum campaign of 2014; but in truth, a march of this size, wrapped in Saltires on a rainy day, looked far more like the bad old days for the cause of Scottish independence, when it could often muster a decent crowd for a march or a Bannockburn celebration, but only rarely attracted even 25 per cent of the vote.
In the present post-Nicola Sturgeon atmosphere – marked by a shamefully indiscriminate pile-on against the Scottish Government and all its works, from many who should know better – it has become fashionable to frame Alex Salmond and his admirers as in some sense bold truth-tellers, or the true voice of a cause “betrayed” by its current leadership.
In truth, though, the reverse is the case. As in England, the voice of the vast majority of voters – after 13 years of Tory government at UK level – is the voice of families desperately anxious about paying their bills, of public services struggling after more than a decade of austerity, of public sector workers hopelessly underpaid, of renters and mortgage-payers trapped in a broken housing market, and of people searching for a more decent form of government that might stop deferring to the greed of those who are already obscenely wealthy, and offer some hope of a sustainable future for their children and grandchildren. Hence the general lack of enthusiasm for flag-heavy politics of all sorts, despite continuing substantial support for Scottish independence as a possible means to social democratic ends.
And that, finally, casts a sharp light on the difficulties currently facing Britain’s two largest centre-left parties, those famous separated twins of Scottish and UK politics, Labour and the SNP. The SNP is in such profound internal crisis, following the messy end of the Sturgeon leadership, that it risks throwing out a raft of her hugely popular social-democratic policy positions along with the grubby bathwater of incoherent anti-Sturgeon and anti-Green sentiment, and a load of long-nursed resentments, some political and serious, many petty and personal.
As for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party – well, evidence is mounting by the day of the desperately narrow room for political manoeuvre left to the Labour party at Westminster, and its terror of advocating any policy change that might be perceived as radical, even when it comes to the huge Brexit elephant in the UK’s economic living-room. While that right-leaning extreme caution might work well enough in some parts of England, it is clearly now boosting support for Greens and Liberal Democrats in other areas; and it could eventually, once again, benefit the SNP in Scotland.
That will only happen, though, if a beleaguered Humza Yousaf can somehow hold his party steady in the vote-winning position slightly to the left of Labour that Alex Salmond so successfully sketched out for it in the mid-2000s. And those days of strategic flair and success now seem immeasurably long ago; as a diminished Salmond stands in the rain on Glasgow Green, steadily trashing the legacy and achievements of the successors who followed his strategy so faithfully, and whose reward was electoral success on a scale the SNP had never seen before in its 80-year existence, and which it may now struggle to see again, any time soon.