Last Saturday, pro-independence activists descended on Glasgow Green after marching from the city’s west end.
Some estimates put the attendance at around 30,000 while others claimed it was nearly three times that. It later emerged that we would likely never know the true figure as most Scottish people are incapable of being rational about anything indy-related.
We had everything from counter-protesters in the form of Nazis waving Union Jacks to the Sunday Herald – a pro-independence title – being accused by its own readers of trying to present the march in a negative light. And, not to be outdone in the coveted bonkers stakes, there were the Unionists who cried “Hold my beer” before proceeding to take more offence at the ‘Tory Scum Out’ banner featured prominently at the demo than they did to the equally prominent Nazi salutes on display.
Whether unionists claiming the All Under One Banner march was merely a constellation of cybernats, personality cults and flag-waving knuckle-draggers or independence supporters ascribing fascism to unionists over a couple of xenophobic headbangers, it’s fair to say we missed our chance – on both sides – to understand what this march was and wasn’t.
What it certainly was not was a sign that independence is just around the corner. At least if it is, there are a few other things in front of it. But it’s also clear that independence is far from off the table.
If anything, the sea of flags, saltires and unicorns, doesn’t do it any justice. But beneath that off-putting veneer, beyond the influence of party strategists and political control freaks, the independence movement is beginning to rediscover its own autonomy – autonomy from the SNP as well as an increasing lack of concern for how their activity plays out in the mainstream media. In fact, pro-indy writers, journalists and commentators have even fanned out across it, taking their rightful place alongside the ‘Masters of the Yooniverse’ who have so far dominated the discussion on the matter.
What must be noted, regardless of your opinion on Scottish independence, is that this demo was comprised of ordinary punters. Many of them now extremely engaged as both activists and more widely, as dedicated members of their respective communities. It’s that visibility in communities that will turn the tide if it’s to be turned at all. Those who believe the union remains the best bet when delivering social justice, would do well to concede more may be at play here than simply blind patriotism or anti-English sentiment.
It’s this blind spot that seems to have developed while many unionists rest on their laurels, that may be their final undoing.
Blind spot for what, you may ask? Well, away from the media-generated bubble on constitutional politics, in working-class communities across Scotland, people look for more than “optics” and “political strategy” when deciding where their loyalties ought to lie. They are not quite as enamoured as our commentariat seems to be by the shrewdness or cleverness of politicos. What working-class people often respond to – zealously in some cases – is when activists who would ask for their support or their vote simply walk alongside them for a time.
When you live in a working-class community, you are used to the rotating cast of transitional do-gooders who parachute in on their professional digs for a brief period, before being airlifted back to more comfortable surroundings. From politicians to charities, journalists to many activists, working-class people already have you sussed. What they find disarming and even endearing, is when you enter their community without an agenda and simply spend time among them, understanding community concerns in the context of their daily reality – and not your own short-term objectives.
Since 2014, admittedly with a lot of bumps along the way, that is mainly what the various sub-sections of the Yes movement have been doing.
From campaigns like Better Than Zero – which has changed the once-accepted culture of low pay and poor conditions in Scotland – to Living Rent, a grassroots initiative that continues to gain public traction with its mix of organising and very direct action in relation to social housing and tenancy rights, activists have their shoulders to the wheel where the nuts and bolts of working-class life are concerned. And while these campaigns tend not to grandstand on indy, there can be no doubt what side of the constitutional tracks they sprung from. Their great strength is that indy is not the all-encompassing issue for them – social justice is.
I understand that many within the Yes movement itself are sceptical of the march. I suspect that scepticism is motivated subtly by the fact it took place in defiance of the SNP. My advice: don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
In the early days of the Scottish Socialist Party, long before the scandals that tore it apart, it was grassroots activism that addressed the concern and aspiration of disenfranchised communities – not political parties – that got them into the Scottish Parliament. The independence movement exists on an entirely different scale from that incarnation of the SSP and benefits from not only the experience of losing, but in remaining socially and politically diverse. It would be unwise for the shoulder-shruggers, who see 30,000 people taking to the streets as something to joke about, to underestimate the potential force such a movement may bring to bear in future. Not least because public opinion on the issue remains unchanged since 2014 while Yes no longer has such a mountain to climb.
By the time the referendum question is once again posed, the Yes movement, collectively, will possess a far more impressive CV – and armoury – than in 2014. So please, defenders of the union, with all respect, do not be too comforted by the Unicorn flags and See You Jimmy bunnets. Behind those terrible “optics”, the hard-work of reimagining a nation is not only being done, but done well.
And even if we lose again, Scotland will be a better place for having us.