Politics and People Power is changing Scotland and beyond

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 9th 2019

Demos and marches are part of the ritual of politics – from today’s pro- and anti-Brexit gatherings, to the direct action and interventions of Extinction Rebellion, and the spate of pro-Scottish independence rallies criss-crossing the nation.

They are often dismissed by those in power and the mainstream media as pointless and having little to no effect. But that is too easy, glib and cynical. Instead, while many marches have a limited impact, only preaching to the converted and not reaching out to persuade beyond the base, others represent something significant and have a lasting influence – whether capturing a moment, defining a movement, or bringing into sharp focus an argument, cause or defining set of principles.

Historically this is obvious. The huge Chartist rallies for democracy in the 19th century; the Suffragette protests of the early 20th century; the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 led by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement; the huge anti-Vietnam war protests in the US in 1969 which shook the Nixon administration; and the anti-Communist rallies which spread across Eastern Europe in late 1989 and which brought down the rotten Stalinist dictatorships one after the other. All these and more are examples of people power bringing about change – often literally in the sense of regime change, or often in terms of existing regimes changing their behaviour.

In more recent times in Scotland and the UK some marches and protests have defined, captured and changed a political moment. Examples include the anti-poll tax demonstrations of 1989-90, the Edinburgh pro-home rule gathering of December 1992, and the anti-Iraq marches of February 2003.

The anti-poll tax marches in Scotland began the slow undermining of Westminster rule, and in particular, the questioning of the legitimacy of Tory rule north of the border when voters repeatedly, and in growing numbers, rejected them at the ballot box but still got Tory Governments imposed on them.

The Edinburgh EU summit in December 1992 was a rare moment of the opposition parties to the Tories – Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, Greens – putting aside their differences and stating to the world that something was amiss in democracy in Scotland. It caused UK Prime Minister John Major at the EU Summit of leaders taking place in Edinburgh public and private embarrassment, led to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl raising the issue with him, and Europeanised the home rule question in a way which irrevocably changed it. And it was also a moment when poetry and politics worked in synergy with writer Willie McIlvanney invoking Scotland as a ‘mongrel nation’.

Perhaps most profound in terms of consequences were the anti-Iraq war marches in Britain, the US and across the world which took place in February 2003. They could not stop the war, but they did reframe domestic British politics at the minimum. They contributed to the emergence of Tony Blair being seen as toxic – and his descent from the most popular UK Prime Minister since records began to being nearly universally detested. And rather importantly in terms of war, it stopped Blair and Bush from launching another military adventure while either was still in office.

This brings us to present day Scotland and the pro-independence march which took place on the Saturday past in Edinburgh under the umbrella organisation: All Under One Banner (AUOB).

AUOB have been holding a rolling programme of marches over the past year – beginning in Glasgow last April and then taking the imaginative step of going on a long and winding tour through smaller Scottish towns and places beyond the Central Belt – such as Ayr, Campbeltown, Galashiels, Oban and Perth – culminating in Edinburgh on Saturday past. This last gathering produced what is inarguably the biggest march for independence in Scotland’s history whatever the actual number – 100,000, 200,000, or as some claim even more. It was large and significant.

Something more than this is going on. These marches are not organised by any political party. Indeed, the SNP formally have nothing to do with them, were at a senior level suspicious at the start of them, and a year on it is telling that Nicola Sturgeon has yet to speak or attend any of these rallies. But it seems if you ask her to speak at any Book Festival the length and breath of the nation she will be along in a shot. That does seem a bit strange and people are beginning to notice.

What AUOB represent is a group of pro-independence activists who have come together and embraced a DIY politics of grass roots, self-organisation. They have done so on their own initiative with little funding or support from any institutions, and this has given them the space to create something unique.

Critics over the past year have dwelt on their mistakes: on the shady background of one or two of the organisers, of the pointless fights picked with Glasgow City Council and Historic Environment Scotland on march timings and logistics which isn’t the best way to win friends. Then there is the Tommy Sheridan question, who has spoken at several AUOB rallies including Saturday, but remains one of the most divisive pro-independence figures, due to his conviction for perjury and continued refusal to admit his guilt.

This has led some pro-independence figures to keep their distance, and some middle class observers to dismiss and caricature them as ‘populists’, ‘people who like to get their faces painted’ and ‘an angry mob’. But that is often what certain parts of the middle classes always do – looking down on and trying to define working class people taking power into their own hands. Such condescension misses the bigger picture.

The AUOB marches have been – certainly up to the latest in Edinburgh – overwhelmingly working class, across all ages but significantly drawn from older voters, and made up of people who are looking for a day out mixing celebration, having a good time, making a political statement and being part of something bigger than themselves.

This is not just about the SNP or even middle class snobbishness, but also about a Scotland beyond the politics of permission and waiting for authority to give the green light. These marches are not authorised or approved by official Scotland, by the political classes or any party – with the pro-independence Greens also keeping a distance. They reflect a profound shift in how we do politics and see power which is more autonomous, diverse, contested, unpredictable, and difficult for the old hierarchies and political parties to control.

We have already seen this Scotland out and about in recent years in the revolt of football fans against the attempted stitch-up by the football authorities to keep Rangers FC in the top league when they went into liquidation in 2012 – the fans won and Rangers FC started again from the bottom tier. Similarly in the long tail of the 2014 indyref, beyond the official campaign on the ‘Yes’ side, an explosion of self-organised groups emerged taking the political arguments beyond the ownership of the political classes.

Rather revealingly most of Scotland’s mainstream media have chosen to ignore these marches with platitudes such as ‘we don’t cover individual marches’ and missing the wider significance. In places this is clearly deliberate, because addressing the changing society would perhaps be too uncomfortable. The same was true of the Rangers FC implosion and crisis and the 2014 campaign.

The Scotland of All Under One Banner is not to everyone’s liking. It certainly does not meet with the approval of the SNP leadership, but independence is about more than Nicola Sturgeon or any individual. But this is also about something much more profound and fundamental than independence: namely, who has voice in society and is listened to and respected, and how power and authority are exercised.

This is an argument I made in my 2014 book, ‘Caledonian Dreaming’ which I then saw as part of a fundamental and irreversible change which has contributed to a ‘long revolution’ in Scottish society: one mostly leaderless in the conventional sense. It has been aided by the decline of the liberal unionist establishment, the traditional media, and of deference per se, the failure of the economic orthodoxies of the last forty years, and the sheer bankruptcy of what passes for the Westminster political mainstream. What I had not fully factored in five years ago was the deep division between this emerging society of a self-government of everyday life and the SNP’s desire to be the new insider class, and that dynamic – and set of tensions – has only grown more pronounced post-2014.

This is a new age of protest, rebellion and competing causes and claims. The old modes of deference and respecting traditional institutions, professionals or experts, no longer holds sway. That means part of the future is going to be more messy, fluid and less easy to predict, in Scotland as well as elsewhere across the developed world.

The old vice-like grip of the British establishment is slipping and weakening by the day. That has to be a positive – an opening, a liberation and the opportunity to be creative. People are becoming more like citizens in how they act – from Brexit, to Extinction Rebellion, the cause of Scottish independence and much more. Whatever your view on each of these issues and others this is a welcome development. It’s about the democratisation of politics and taking it back from the political classes.