An extraordinary thing happened in Edinburgh this weekend. Around 100,000 people marched peacefully through the city centre to express support for Scottish independence – with virtually no serious analysis.
Accepted, nothing really “happened”. But what does that say about our media?
If there’d been a punch-up with the dozen Union supporters who heckled walkers halfway down the Royal Mile there would have been TV reporters investigating “sinister leanings” among Yes supporters. If there’d been a confrontation with the staff of Historic Environment Scotland or the police stuck with the thankless task of administering its daft ban on access to a rally in Holyrood Park there would have been banner headlines. If there had been a meagre turnout there would have been derision – whaur’s your dedicated activist base noo?
In the event, the march passed off peacefully – hence, not much beyond straightforward news reports made the evening TV bulletins. By yesterday morning, it was as if the giant march had never happened. To be fair, there were a few photies in the Sunday press. After all the march was eye-catching. But analysis? The mainstream press paid scant attention, even though the numbers, if replicated on a UK scale, would equal the million-plus marchers in London who protested against the Iraq war in 2003.
Of course those numbers have been questioned. The police estimate was a mere 20,000 people. Having been in both Edinburgh and Dundee at an earlier march this summer (where the official count was 16,000 people), I find that official estimate absolutely impossible to believe. The organisers say 75- 100,000 people took part, which seems far more accurate.
The fact the largest event in the capital for decades provoked so little journalistic curiosity is astonishing.
Naturally, the Sunday papers feasted on SNP conference-related stories. An opinion poll suggests 52% of voters would back independence if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal. Alex Neil has called on Nicola Sturgeon to produce a new independence white paper and Sturgeon told Andrew Marr her MPs would “undoubtedly” vote for a new Brexit referendum.
These are big stories with Scottish and UK significance – agreed. But why do analysts and commentators think support for independence has remained steady despite no active campaign since 2014? Why can Neil be confident that rocking the boat with an alternative campaigning proposal won’t sink it? Could it be that the growing power of the independence movement has lent ballast to the SNP and created a bedrock of support which is autonomously and locally organised, and doesn’t have to react to the exigencies of the electoral cycle? The more the SNP leaves independence, strategy and Brexit to unassailable leadership speeches at conference, the more its members need space to express and organise freely. And vice versa. The democratic and elected structures of the SNP and the hyper-representative Scottish Independence Convention allow the wider movement to remain free-flowing, structure-free, grassroots-led… but therefore grossly underestimated.
All Under One Banner (AUOB) has organised five rallies across Scotland this summer. It’s a loose group without staff, professionals or official structure. It’s hardly a democratic movement and it doesn’t pretend to be. There are no elections or governing bodies and there’s a connection with Tommy Sheridan, whose presence on platforms is still an issue for most feminists. But the great achievement of AUOB is that these issues haven’t obscured the bigger picture but have let all sorts of folk join on their own terms, within exceptionally well-stewarded demonstrations organised from a simple Facebook page. Despite the suggestion that SNP MPs and MSPs had been advised not to attend the Holyrood Park rally, for example, speakers included the party’s deputy leader Keith Brown plus MPs Philippa Whitford and Tommy Sheppard. That’s significant.
Yet still there’s been no serious analysis beyond a row over numbers – particularly strange because movements are pretty powerful right now. Momentum operates inside the Labour Party with a prescriptive approach to candidate selection. The trade union movement still supports Labour in the hope it will protect workers’ rights.
The independence movement is different from both. Unlike trade unions, it’s composed of local and special interest groups which are open to all and don’t charge fees or subscriptions. Unlike Momentum, there is no ambition to interfere with candidate selection inside a political party.
The indy movement doesn’t want to subvert or reproduce representative democracy, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as a political force. This weekend demonstrated maturity among demonstrators in a number of ways. First, anger and impatience was converted into good-natured determination by an effective, quietly self-organising network of people, prepared to travel across Scotland to express their continuing support for independence. This has happened without training or conventional leadership.
Second, the AUOB organisers’ ability to hold their nerve meant Historic Environment Scotland’s ban on using Holyrood Park for the post-march rally backfired spectacularly. Indeed many came along specifically to show that faceless quangos cannot challenge the democratic right of citizens to march and organise.
Third, the gathering has re-energised the movement in the way a good conference re-energises party members.
One man at his first demonstration said: “Honestly I was almost in tears today. I didn’t think I’d see this. Independence might not be tomorrow but I know it’s going to happen now. You cannot put this back in the box.”
Now of course marches don’t necessarily convert people – especially if their size is dramatically underestimated and the event is not televised but preceded by warnings about possible conflict with the authorities. Folk caught in traffic disruption were bound to be irritated as Old Town traffic snarled up during the two-hour procession. I would have been irritated myself.
But I’ve been in many political gatherings and Saturday was different. Despite, perhaps even because of, obstruction by arms of government and the usual cursory glance from the mainstream media, the self-organising confidence of Yes campaigners is at an all-time high.
That’s no threat to Sturgeon’s leadership but it does provide further impetus for a second indyref – when the time is right.