Taking Back Control: The Rise of People Power in Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, January 12th 2020

Rallies and marches are an intrinsic part of politics the world over.

Throughout history the politics of protesting and marching has made an impact and on occasions truly shaken power. Chartist rallies for democracy in the 19th century, Suffragette protests of the early 20th century, the civil rights marches of the 1960s of Martin Luther King and others, the anti-Vietnam war protests which spanned the globe in the late 1960s; and the anti-Communist rallies across Eastern Europe in 1989 which overthrew rotten Stalinist dictatorships. All these show the potential of people power to aid change – including regime change.

Recent Scottish and UK politics cannot match the above drama and history. But we are still living in an UK political environment affected by the deceits of the Iraq war and the anger of the anti-war protests of 2003. In Scotland the anti-poll tax demos of 1989-90 contributed to the tax being seen as illegitimate and defeated; while the Edinburgh pro-home rule gathering of December 1992 as a backdrop to the EU summit in the city highlighted and internationalised the cause of self-government to dramatic effect.

Present day Scotland now witnesses regular marches undertaken by pro-independence forces, many organised by the umbrella organisation: All Under One Banner (AUOB) – the body behind yesterday’s march in Glasgow.

Its origins are to be found in the post-indyref political environment. Neil Mackay, from Glasgow, a central figure in the creation of AUOB reflects: ‘After the vote I felt compelled to do something. I went to one rally and it was passive and a bit downbeat. Then All Under One Banner just came into in my head. I created a Facebook page.’

He goes on: ‘I had an idea of doing a synchronised series of events in the run-up to the 2015 election: marches, demos, coffee mornings. This led to the first march on 25 April 2015 in Glasgow.’ From then it slowly grew and then took off.

Carol McNamara, from Neilston, one of the organisers puts it: ‘In the last year AUOB has grown arms and legs. At first it was anarchic and felt great. Then we had to get organised, get a new web site and become properly constituted. We aren’t doing this for ego. Rather it is developing a steam engine and, in so doing, accepting you have to have a thick skin and be bloody minded.’

Neil Mackay looks back on the roller coaster of AUOB growing: ‘In the first few years we didn’t do rallies but instead just focused on the marches with an open invitation to Yes stalls.’ This led to other groups providing speakers at the conclusion of the marches and ‘from these experiences we decided to stage rallies ourselves and made connections which yielded the social contacts and skill sets needed to do the whole package – to stage marches and rallies with a range of speakers and entertainment.’

AUOB held a rolling programme of marches over 2019, beginning in Glasgow last April and going on a long and winding tour through smaller Scottish towns and places beyond the Central Belt such as Ayr, Galashiels, Oban and Perth – culminating in Edinburgh.

This is deliberate, as Andrew Wilson from Edinburgh, who began by ‘stewarding’ and loves speaking and being on sociable terms with so many people, points out: ‘AUOB organises marches not just in the Central Belt. We made a point last year of organising marches in towns such as Oban, Ayr and Galashiels. The visibility in towns and places across the country says something about inclusivity and diversity and being positive about all Scotland.’

AUOB represent a group of pro-independence activists who have embraced a DIY politics of grass roots led, self-organisation. They have done so on their own initiative without the support or encouragement of any political party, and without funding from established institutions. This has given them the space to create something both unique and even historic.

Karen Jamieson, from Glasgow, feels the momentum that the rallies have witnessed: ‘AUOB is getting a bigger following day by day. The more marches and rallies happen the bigger the response and the more you feel the need to be involved. We need to get bigger as a movement. We need get to bigger in our ambitions.’

Many of the AUOB marches have been – prior to Glasgow – filled with a wide range of people of all ages, backgrounds and types, but with a significant strand of older voters; made up of people looking for a day out mixing celebration, having a good time, making a political statement and being part of something bigger than themselves.

Karen Jamesion thinks as important as the numbers is how the events feel: ‘They are happy, warm, and welcoming marches, family friendly and have a carnival atmosphere and even euphoria for many taking part.’ Andrew Wilson thinks there is also ‘an element of Scottish communityness about them – a shared political vision’ which is about the marches being ‘very social’ and having ‘a distinct community feeling about them.’

Something significant is going on with AUOB – about both independence and something perhaps even more important. It is also about who holds power and authority in modern Scotland, and what could shape our future.

This is 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 SNP and Greens keeping their distance until the scale and reach of these marches convince them that they shouldn’t ignore them any longer.

The marches 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.

The AUOB protests have to be seen against a broader backstory and a changing Scotland – one that is not owned by any one political party or political tradition. This country, for all its radical struggles and traditions, used to be defined by a very hierarchical society where authority, power and order were held in a few hands and often exercised with punitiveness to any who dared to disagree and dissent publically.

Power has in recent decades begun to shift away from this old order – and there have been a couple of high profile examples where traditional authority and its dominance has been openly challenged and even defeated.

One example was when Rangers FC went into administration and liquidation in 2012. At first the football authorities tried to do as they would have always done and pretend nothing had happened and that the ‘new’ Rangers could just continue as before in the top league.

Fans of the other clubs came together and stopped this with Rangers having to start again in the fourth tier. Football fans showed the ability, aided by social media, to not only have a protest voice, but to debate and have a collective say on the future of the game, organising together and saying that unless Rangers started from the lowest league they would boycott their own clubs.

This was a precursor for the bigger shift in authority that was the 2014 indyref campaign, but this connection and backstory hasn’t been one that the SNP has understood. Just after the indyref vote I spoke to one of the SNP’s senior strategists, making the connection between the Rangers episode and the indyref, and they replied: ‘You aren’t talking about football are you? You are talking about power’ – indicating they had never previously thought of the point.

The 2014 indyref saw a crescendo of energy, activism and initiatives the like of which had never before been seen in Scotland. Beyond the official ‘Yes’ campaign there was an explosion of self-organisation taking politics and the art of political education from the grasp of the parties and the political classes and remaking the contours and dynamics of public life.

AUOB is not to everyone’s liking. It has had growing pains – as any such initiative would. It has had to face the Tommy Sheridan question – with groups such as Women for Independence (WfI) and others ‘no platforming’ Sheridan. There has even been middle class condescension towards people expressing themselves through such things as face painting and flag waving – finding all that a bit too ‘vulgar’.

This is a new age that we can see across the globe and most of the developed world: of protest, rebellion and competing causes and claims. The old modes of deference and respecting traditional institutions, professionals and experts, no longer hold sway. That means that the future will be much more messy, fluid and less easy to predict, in Scotland and elsewhere.

The old hold of the British establishment is slipping and weakening by the day. That has to be a positive – an opening, a liberation and an opportunity to be creative. Neil Mackay sees AUOB contributing to a wider movement across the UK which is part of ‘a sustainable working class uprising that dismantles the British state’.

Carol McNamara thinks that AUOB ‘have accidently become an information hub. People come to us with all sorts of questions about independence. This isn’t a part-time, voluntary thing. It has become an all-year, full-time activity’, filling a much needed gap.

It has provided a sense of community, belonging and coming together which is an intrinsic part of any successful politics and touches profound issues about being human.

More than this Neil Mackay believes that: ‘We are fundamentally a pressure group. AUOB’s aim is to push the Scottish Government and to emphasise the power underneath them. We are here to hold them to account and to hold their feet to the fire as much as we do to Westminster.’

Andrew Wilson puts his hopes for AUOB and Scotland more humbly: ‘If we are going to secure our independence then we are all going to have to step up and do a bit more.’

Scotland is on a journey. It isn’t about any one individual. It is about all of us as a nation, society and community. It is about not waiting for permission, but about being the change, living it and doing it, and a political future which isn’t about abstracts, but is being created in hundreds of thousands of small ways in everyday life which add up to something momentous and historic. That means away from the marches and rallies having honest, difficult debates about the choices a future Scotland will face on social justice, poverty, public services, wealth creation and more.

This is a democratisation of politics and taking back control. There is a wind of change – generationally, culturally and in attitude – blowing through Scotland at the moment. Power wherever it is held and by whoever has to be held conditionally and constantly answerable and accountable to the people. That attitude – of a lived, everyday self-government – is there in the All Under One Banner marches.

It is an independence of spirit and mind which is what the independence of a nation and state should involve. Welcome to our future if we dare, dream and get serious while also having a good day out.