Lesley Riddoch: Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance at pro-independence rally shows strength of wider movement

The First Minister should look beyond the SNP for a new source of inspiration, says Lesley Riddoch.

Nicola Sturgeon addresses her first major, pro-independence, open-air rally in Glasgow this weekend.

Will the media cover it, despite ignoring previous All Under One Banner marches – even though their crowds might have been bigger?

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Of course, the cameras will turn up, and it’s quite right they should be there.

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PANicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

But why has the First Minister felt compelled to co-organise her own rally, after a conspicuous failure to join the foot-soldiers slogging up and down high streets the length and breadth of Scotland these past years?

Obviously, controlling her own gig, lets Nicola Sturgeon ensure that a former socialist leader doesn’t grace the platform.

It also lets her choose a significant date – two days after Boris Johnson’s failure to “do or die”.

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With support for the SNP and independence slowly rising, that’s an ideal moment for the SNP leader to seize the initiative, and name her preferred day, week or month for indyref2 in 2020 – even if there’s very little chance of a Section 30 order from any Conservative-led UK government.

The dance has begun – and the moves must continue.

But there’s another reason Nicola Sturgeon will finally speak at an independence rally: the Yes movement has brought her there.

No political leader could continue to ignore the unparalleled levels of street activism from her own side without looking detached, disapproving or a wee bit lofty.

All Under One Banner, despite internal wrangles, no big cash and no media coverage, have provided a physical focus for half of Scotland’s population inclined towards independence. And there’s plenty more self-starting, vigorous, independence-supporting groups around.

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So many, they are starting to put pressure on a party leadership that’s proved almost impervious to everything and everyone else.

Consider. The traditional model of liberal democracy suggests opposition parties put pressure on governments, and members influence party leaders.

But just as the SNP “broke the system” when it won an outright majority in Holyrood – designed to produce minority administrations, coalition and consensus – the party has proved pretty adept at breaking the unwritten rules of political engagement too.

Do the Tories provide effective opposition? Not really – and certainly not any more. With his blunderbuss progress towards a hard Brexit, Boris Johnson has kicked one leg from the leaky vessel containing Scotland’s 44 Tory MP and MSPs.

With one flourish of a signature accepting her new lobbying job, Ruth Davidson has kicked away the other.

The Tories can land blows on individual domestic policy failures – which are rarely as serious as those occurring weekly south of the border – but have failed to offer a coherent, alternative direction for Scotland, or stop Holyrood from being airbrushed out of Brexit proceedings.

Scottish Labour is political weakness personified.

Every week, Richard Leonard pointlessly weighs in over issues actually reserved to Westminster yet fails to pin the SNP down on the impact of lobbyists, procurement processes which favour a few big consultancy “players”, target-driven strategies that fail to tackle underlying power imbalances and country-sized units of “local” governance.

Even though these issues are on the policy agenda of the Scottish Lib Dems and Greens, their rare moments in the spotlight are generally devoted to issues closer to the hearts of core supporters, more topical and easier to deliver in a First Minister’s Question soundbite.

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Meanwhile, SNP members and even elected representatives have gey little influence on their party leadership. SNP conference is an exercise in (fairly impressive) stage management, but agenda-setting is tightly controlled – as it is in most mainstream parties.

But where do new ideas come from? Who is looking over the brow of the constitutional dilemmas ahead and starting to visualise and debate the shape of a new Scotland?

Who really influences the SNP – is it the much-feared, unionist-leaning, hypercritical mainstream media? Or might it also be the myriad parts of the Yes movement who refuse to go away, pipe down or be co-opted, refuse to follow the patterns of organisation that bestow “credibility,” and dare to hold conferences – like this weekend’s Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow – to discuss policies and strategies well above their formal pay grade?

SNP delegates were unable to debate the best strategy to adopt if a Section 30 order is rejected. Radical Independence activists spent a full day on that very subject.

It’s easy to be cynical about the real import of 600 lefties debating strategy, but even easier to overlook the start of something big because it doesn’t resemble any part of political business as usual.

Common Weal is publishing its own, alternative blueprints for a decentralised, non-market-driven society.

Business for Scotland is devising its own persuasive campaign. Radical Independence is debating strategies to keep the pressure up for an official referendum, including an examination of other legal options open to the Scottish Government and the option of tightly-controlled, civil disobedience.

Local Yes Groups have formed regional groups – I’d encourage them to consider establishing a National Federation of Yes Groups to ensure the voice of working-class Scotland is heard loud and clear too – and Independence Live is continuing to livestream events that are independence-oriented or simply important to our civic society ignored by mainstream broadcasters.

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Most of these groups operate without a bean – but all are expanding their numbers, ambition and reach.

All Under One Banner too.

Some marchers are a bit resentful that it’s taken the First Minister so long to address the wider movement in the time-honoured fashion.

Directly. On the streets.

But actually, the Yes movement has benefited from the absence of SNP hands on the tiller. A string of marches organised by the SNP would have been dismissed by critics as gatherings of the “party faithful.” Instead, the dogged, well-stewarded marches have become one wing of a distributed Yes movement – a grassroots network like no other, without formal leaders, central offices, membership forms or media coverage.

That’s powerful, and in many ways, a collective and unofficial opposition to the Scottish Government – despite the lack of publicity.

So, when the cameras and crowds gather to hear Nicola Sturgeon in George Square this weekend, it’ll be no slap in the face to the unacknowledged foot-soldiers of the Yes movement, but the biggest imaginable back-handed compliment.