FIVE thousand supporters of Scottish independence marched through Edinburgh yesterday to hear Alex Salmond claim that their campaign would “light up” the country prior to the 2014 referendum.
The First Minister used a speech at the rally in the capital to argue that independence would stop welfare cuts, prevent Scots from going to wars they did not support and remove nuclear weapons from the country.
However, pro-UK parties last night declared that the turn-out for the event, lower than rallies for devolution in the 1990s, was a “personal embarrassment” to the First Minister, saying it showed that Scotland had “snubbed” the push for independence.
They also sought to draw a contrast between the rally in Catalonia last week when more than 1 million people turned out on the streets of Barcelona to support an independence rally there.
Nonetheless, organisers said they would be pressing ahead with two more September rallies prior to the 2014 referendum, in the hope of demonstrating a growing grass-roots momentum towards independence.
The march yesterday set off from the Meadows in Edinburgh and wound through the city before supporters congregated in Princes Street Gardens to hear a range of speakers including Salmond and independent MSP Margo MacDonald. Two men were arrested following a minor disturbance along the route.
Addressing a crowd waving saltires and lion rampants, Salmond claimed that 100,000 people had already signed up to an “Independence Declaration” that he hoped would have one million backers by the time a referendum took place. The SNP leader then launched into an attack on the UK Government, saying: “Let’s think of some of the things Westminster chooses. Why should they choose austerity when we want to choose investment? We choose a different way to protect the people of Scotland.”
Salmond also quoted from a new poll finding from the British Social Attitudes Survey which showed last week that 43 per cent of people believed the Scottish Parliament “should make all decisions” about the country. He claimed it “showed that independence was now the most popular option,” adding, “just as the skies around Scotland were lit up by meteors last night, this campaign will light up Scotland over the next two years.”
MacDonald pointed to polls showing that around one-third of Scots currently back independence. “If a third of Scots believe it now, everyone of us has two years to persuade one Scot and we are home and dry” she said. “That is not fanciful, that is practical.”
But she said she opposed the SNP’s plan to take an independent Scotland into Nato, arguing that such differences should not be a “deal breaker”. “If you think we should stay in Nato, well there will be plenty of time to decide after independence,” she told the crowd.
The rally also heard from former Labour MP and MSP Dennis Canavan, who said he was now supporting independence because it would help achieve a “higher standard of social justice”.
Left-wing campaigner Sean Clerkin said he wanted the country to “shake off the chains of debt and shake off the chains of the Union”. Meanwhile, lawyer Aamer Anwar said he was “inspired” by the film Braveheart. “The soul of Scotland, long suppressed, is finally finding its voice,” he said. The leader of the Scottish Socialist party compared the events in Scotland to unprisings in the Arab world. “This is the beginning of the Scottish spring,” said Colin Fox. Allan Grogan, of the Labour for Independence campaign, criticised his party’s opposition to Scottish secession and its decision to join a pro-UK campaign alongside the Conservatives.
But the turnout was seized upon by pro-UK parties last night. The attendance of 5,000 was a long way short of the 30,000 who massed in the Meadows 20 years ago for the 1992 “Scotland Demands Democracy” march and an event regarded as a major staging post on the way to the creation of a Scottish Parliament seven years later.
In 2005, Scotland saw its largest ever single protest when around 225,000 people converged on Edinburgh for the “Make Poverty History” rally organised to coincide with the G8 Summit of world leaders at Gleneagles. In 2003, anger over the Iraq War saw a crowd estimated between 50,000 and 80,000 turn out for Tony Blair’s visit to Glasgow for Labour’s spring conference.
Scottish Labour’s Patricia Ferguson said: “More than three times this number turned out to march for devolution in the 90s and despite the huge drive by the SNP to get people to attend, this has been both a damp squib and a personal embarrassment for Alex Salmond.”
Scottish Conservative constitutional spokesman David McLetchie said: “Last week, one-and-a-half million people in Catalonia demonstrated for independence. Today, in stark contrast, Alex Salmond’s march for separation attracted less people than a struggling third division football team.”