We were supposed to set off from Johnston Terrace at one o’clock on last Saturday’s march for independence. In fact, it was a quarter past two by the time I turned into the Lawnmarket and began the walk down the Royal Mile to Holyrood.
That’s what happens when the biggest gathering in years descends upon the centre of Edinburgh and parades through narrow medieval streets. As a popular tweet quipped – we’re gonna need a bigger city.
Organisers claimed 100,000 people attended. The council said a lot fewer. However many it was, it was huge. It would be almost impossible to say for sure how many took part as there was never a time when everyone was together in the same place. By the time I got to Holyrood Park – an hour after leaving Castle Hill – those at the front were already leaving.
If you were there you’ll know that it was an extremely good-natured and friendly event. Whole families were there – from Pensioners for Indy to babes in arms. Home-made humorous placards vastly outnumbered those produced by various political groups trying to get in on the action.
Many were veterans of past campaigns but there were lots, too, for whom this was their first protest. In particular, there were plenty who have become so disillusioned by the way the Tories are using Brexit to change Britain beyond recognition that they now believe Scotland becoming an independent country offers a better prospect for them and their families.
Some commentators claimed that the protest was some sort of embarrassment to Nicola Sturgeon – designed to force her hand into calling an early second referendum on independence. In fact, it was an incredibly canny and savvy crowd that was present last Saturday. They know only too well that the Brexit endgame has to come to some sort of conclusion before we can see what it is that independence is an alternative to.
The day after, the SNP’s annual conference began in Glasgow. By any measure this must be the most positive and united political gathering in the entire UK. Whilst other parties divide into squabbling factions, SNP activists come together in mutual support. I don’t pretend for one moment that we would rather be a lot clearer on what Brexit means so that we could get on with preparing a new prospectus for self-government. But the SNP rank and file are not lashing out in frustration; instead there is a purposeful patience.
The message of the conference was hope. In every session delegates voted for policies to make things better in our country. For a more positive attitude to immigration built on welcoming people rather than trying to keep them out. For a policy to tackle the frightening number of deaths through drug misuse. For scrapping the punitive policies on child tax credits. For a policy of allowing refugee families to be united. What all these policies have in common is that they cannot be implemented by the Scottish Government – they can only be executed when Scotland becomes a self-governing country with the full powers of an independent nation.
One of the highlights of the conference was the address by Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, who told us that under the Tories the old Britain was dying. We should let it die, he said, and, in its place, allow three new countries to prosper on this island – countries that would undoubtedly work together in a more constructive and effective way than the current antiquated British constriction allows. I wholeheartedly agree.
Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East