Thousands Attended, Millions Didn’t
7th May 2018
It has been interesting to watch the reaction to the massive independence demonstration that took place in Glasgow, and to analyse the way it has been reported. Naturally, there have been some sympathetic to the independence cause who have asked if such events are effective in converting No voters. Then of course we have seen others less sympathetic to independence question the numbers of the demonstration – or in some cases to mount an argument familiar to those of us who mobilised for the great anti-war demonstrations: yes, the demonstration was large, but a far larger number of people didn’t march and simply got on with their day.
That was one point of analysis offered by Paul Hutcheon, for example, on the Sunday Politics. He said: “while tens of thousands of people attended the rally, millions didn’t.” Sharing the panel, Katie Grant initially attempted to say that the demonstration was an SNP mobilisation (presumably to account for its size) before saying that while the march looked united, it was in reality full of contradictions and internal arguments about the big issues of the day, including the European Union.
Political analysis of the independence march by prominent BBC show. Clip shows why I wanted to help those building new media in Scotland. The commentators are patronising & dismissive. This is journalism ? #BBC #Indyref2 #Scotref #YES pic.twitter.com/Q1xvrwOfUu
— Laura Muncie (@LauraMJThomson) May 7, 2018
I take the Sunday Politics reflections as examples, because they represent the key elements of a more general appraisal of the event, repeated by various commentators. But this analysis is superficial in the extreme. It profoundly misses what is going on underneath the surface. Many – including myself – expected the demonstration to be a gathering of the most die-hard elements of the movement. I expected up to ten thousand people to take to the streets. That would still a large demonstration in Scottish terms. It would merit the degree of responses garnered from the media and politicians. As it happened estimates vary from 50,000 up to 90,000. From studying the video and pictures it is very conceivable that it is on the upper end of that scale.
Whatever the exact number, it was big enough to make an impact. It forced the grassroots into the discussion about the future direction of the independence movement. It had to be reported – albeit in skin deep terms – and the Sunday Politics couldn’t simply ignore the event either, nor could the BBC. Every candidate for the SNP deputy leadership was in attendance. The First Minister – who had not reacted to previous independence demonstrations in recent years – retweeted media coverage of the march such was its size. Anyone who knows anything about grassroots pressure and its relationship with political leaders will tell you that every reaction to mobilisations from below are carefully judged by those in power above. Nicola Sturgeon, known for her careful approach to such questions (for some, too careful), judged that this demonstration carried enough weight to react to it positively.
It couldn’t be ignored. Those four words are fundamental. No matter how anyone tries to decry the event – politically, to undermine its size, to say it is ineffectual – they are unable to ignore it. Anyone who has ever organised a demonstration will know how important that is, and what future openings it can provide. I have been part of organising some very large demonstrations in Scotland. They are not easy to pull off. The timing has to be right. You need the backing of organisations, parties, unions and campaigns. You need money and media to help raise awareness of its importance.
This understanding is what is most immediately – yet notably lacking – from much of the commentary.
This demonstration was not backed by the SNP. It was not advertised by the SNP. There was no call from its leaders to join the march. This demonstration had no backing from trade unions. Indeed it had no formal backing from any political party. It received scant media coverage in the build up, aside from the pro-independence National newspaper. Even on social media it had a presence but it wasn’t omnipresent even on pro-independence channels. Perhaps there were, but I saw no promotional videos. It didn’t appear to have any significant financial backing.
Given all of this, the sheer size of the demonstration through the streets of Glasgow is all the more remarkable. It was enormous in Scottish terms. We can comfortably say that is the largest demonstration that Scotland has seen since the monster Make Poverty History march in 2005. And it is the largest in Glasgow since the anti-war march of 2003. Keep in mind: both of these events had everything that the independence demonstration didn’t: a coalition of large campaign organisations, huge media exposure and financial backing.
This was therefore an astonishingly organic moment, showing just how deep the roots of the independence movement are in communities across the country. It is genuinely incredible that Scotland’s leading political commentators don’t seem to comprehend the importance of this, or understand the social forces involved in driving such a process. I spoke to many about the event – and lots of people had no idea it was happening until they saw the pictures come through on their social media. One friend told me he knew it was going to be big. Several of his workmates had mentioned they were attending. That’s not normal – it reflects a much larger mood. This was not the fringes of Scottish nationalism that inhabit the Twittersphere. This was a mass of ordinary people who inhabit workplaces, communities and colleges.
It spoke to the story of the modern independence movement that was so popular in 2014. Another point dramatically missing from the coverage. No one asked for permission. People didn’t wait for the SNP leaders to call for action. Frankly, it was this kind of dynamic that saved the Yes campaign in 2014. I recall Blair Jenkins being asked if Yes Scotland could keep up with new groups and events being set up. They couldn’t, he said, because the campaign had developed such momentum at the base of Scottish society that events were springing up everywhere without their knowledge or support. That is what a real social movement looks like – and Blair was astute to respect this rather than seeking to control it.
The demonstration reflected the essence of this spirit. It has put the grassroots into the agenda – in the SNP, in the national conversation and in the media. But it doesn’t stop there. It has laid down a marker to the British state itself. This is not hyperbole. It has shown that should Nicola Sturgeon call for a referendum only for it to be refused by the Tories, there exists the potential for a mass movement of popular revolt in defence of Scottish democracy.
In all of the discussion about the timing of a referendum this has always been the key component. It is assumed by many that it is in the First Ministers gift to call for a referendum. Of course – it has to be sanctioned. And on balance it is likely to be resisted. But the demonstration shows that there are resources available to mobilise a counter-proposition to the obstacles erected by the British state to a referendum in the form of tens of thousands of people willing to take to the streets. Imagine if the SNP and others were to support and even to call for such action should such circumstances emerge.
This is not what the SNP leadership prefers. They don’t want to polarise their relationship with the British state, but instead to develop a more gradualist strategy based on ‘competent government’ and on being a good citizen of Europe. But the political period is a volatile one, where mass movements can have a much greater impact because political parties and institutions are increasingly unable to capture and retain the aspirations of growing numbers of people. This process is happening across the Western world and being expressed in various ways – lots of it unfortunately through the populist right.
Paul Hutcheon is of course technically right to say “millions didn’t march.” But that spectacularly misses the key element of the political crisis. Mobilised opinion – even it is polarising and is deemed to be a minority sport – can have a disproportionate impact on the political debate. I remember Euan McColm said the something similar after a large independence demonstration during the referendum itself when he tweeted that most people were shopping or having an afternoon pint. The point is this: when tens of thousands of people are willing to take to the streets, in self-organised fashion, something is broader and deeper happening. Something that is beyond the control of any political leader. Something that takes people who spend their lives being paid to write and commentate on politics by surprise. And it is that fact that makes it powerful and means it has consequences.
This is the core of the meaning of such a demonstration. Am I a fan of a sea of Saltires and Lion Rampants? No. Are there,as Katie Grant says, divisions of opinion on the demonstration? Yes. And those arguments have been had and will continue to be had. Over the impact of Corbyn on the discussion, or European Union membership, or strategy and tactics. Does it convince No voters to convert? Probably not. But in my view all of that is subordinate to what the demonstration represents in terms of the social forces it was able to mobilise on its own, from below, and in utterly organic fashion. The primary objective was clearly not to convince No voters – but to re-establish the Yes grassroots as a force in society.
Someone said to me that the march was a nationalist parade, devoid of class politics. Class politics would be on show the next day at the May Day march. And it was. This years May Day rally heard from inspiring speeches from workers in struggle, from the Repeal the 8th movement, and from the now legendary organiser and writer Jane McAlevey. But the left must never have a mechanical view of “class politics”.
The truth is that the independence demonstration was infused with class issues. It is in fact this kind of stand-offishness that has rendered the left incoherent and on the sidelines on major questions – not least on Brexit in England in particular. But the same can be said in the United States and across Europe. Actually existing class politics is not hermetically sealed from all kinds of other influences in society, and doesn’t always present itself in the form of a strike, or under a red flag.
If someone waving a Saltire is a barrier to engagement – you have already lost. Such purism only ends in the forces of the right taking the initiative – as they have done across the continent. The left must eradicate such an approach from its thinking. In the Scottish context tribalism prevents this for many on the Labour left, meaning that instead of seeing the deeper processes at work on the independence march, they see only an SNP power base. It much, much more complicated than that. There is a mass progressive movement in Scotland that can be harnessed through debate and dialogue. And the popular independence movement is rooted in progressive ideas – fired by deeply felt resentment at a political order that has failed.
Class politics is about power, and an understanding of power. In 2014 hundreds of thousands of Scots felt a sense of their own power as they stood up to the British state, the Tory party, the banks – even the US President. The demonstration was an expression of power. And guess what? People like having power. 2014 gave a taste of what was possible. In 2014 the Radical Independence Campaign carried out targeted outreach campaigns in areas where voter registration was its lowest. Why did we do this? In part it was because we knew that there was a chance for the people with least power in society to deal a blow to the most powerful. It would be part of a mass democratic revolt against austerity, Toryism and at an international level would precipitate a certain restructuring of transatlantic and European order.
A Yes vote would not only have altered the terrain of Sottish politics – but it would have sent shock waves through the Western state system. It would have sparked an immediate battle of ideas in the society: integration into the failing neoliberal order versus rupture and forging a new trajectory. In this process success or failure in the race for what kind of society we would develop would always rest on the tenacity and good instincts of the movement coming from below. And a movement who has tasted one victory does not easily back down. In other words the Yes movement was itself an exercise in power – which mobilised communities the length and breadth of the country. The demonstration has refueled tens of thousands of potential activists. It is commonly thought that demonstrations are all about external engagement. If you have never fought from the grassroots it feels counter-intuitive – but demonstrations despite their public manifestation often perform an even more important internal function. The provide identity, solidarity and energy between participants. Without this, no campaign can be successful.
There is a way to go. There are deep structural problems facing the independence cause, as well as changes in the political context. I have consistently argued, for example, that independence should not be married to EU membership or on the fate of Brexit. In this there are continuing problems and strategic dilemmas. But one thing is clear: there is a movement willing to mobilise and there to be tapped into dependent on circumstances. Differences of opinion naturally exist – but they should be embraced. Strong movements do not demand obedience – which is different from discipline – but are enriched from debate. But we should be clear – even if some in the commentariat are not – that this was an event of some significance.
Some have to recognise the scale, but say the rabble has no concept of strategy. Mark Smith finishes his column in The Herald reflecting on the march by saying:
“…if the Glasgow march has proved anything, it’s that listening to the man on the streets is not always the wisest option.”
One must point to the irony inherent in this statement. It seems to me that displaying the return of the independence grassroots when the tide has been against them to the extent that you have to devote a column to debunking their credentials is evidence of having the wherewith all to exert exceptional political leverage. And at the risk of repeating myself, without the backing of the SNP. Give me the first hundred marchers over the first hundred six figure salary political advisers – without question. I thought that was the basic lesson of the last few years in Western politics.
For now, it is over to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership to decide if they should use the mandate to call for another referendum. But even that won’t be the biggest decision they have to make. A much larger one, is what to do if the British state were to refuse their request. Because should that come to pass – Saturdays display of power gives us reason to believe that it would be eclipsed by even larger demonstrations should this come to pass. That is outside the comfort zone of formal politics – and yet it would mobilise thousands to the streets. Isn’t that the central contradiction of the political moment? That is why it is the most significant marker in the development of the independence movement since the return of 59 SNP MPs in 2015. And it was delivered by ordinary people doing it for themselves – without sanction, the formal backing of their leaders, and against the political wind. And yes – this all happened while most people went about their normal Saturday.
Brighten your day.