William Thomson: Ignore the critics - here's why Scottish indy marches do make a difference

Event consultant William Thomson says demos in support for indy could be a very powerful tool in the coming years

SO WHAT? Around 17,000 people (splitting the difference between police and organiser estimates) gave up part of a Saturday afternoon to demonstrate at the All Under One Banner (AUOB) rally in favour of a second independence referendum. Let's put that into some context. 

With an average of over 750 people visiting a Starbucks each day, almost as many Glaswegians had a coffee in the 20 tax-dodging coffee shops across the city on Saturday.

Let's deal with a sobering fact: in September 2014, 1,617,989 people voted for Scottish independence. Three years later, with less than a week to go, before an exceptionally important General Election - which has been centred around another Scottish independence referendum - our movement moved one per cent of that constituency on to the streets. 

Read more – Pictures: Largest ever independence march displays “appetite” for ScotRef ahead of #GE17

Is this something to celebrate? Or does it give the unionists ammunition to further their call, via Ruth Davidson, that there is no support for another independence referendum? Maybe it does, because one per cent is almost no support.

Well, it is not quite as simple as that. 

Like the rest of the UK, Scotland doesn't boast a particularly well known street movement. So, in that context, around 17,000 people filling the streets is exceptional. 

This is especially so when you consider the resources available to the organisers, and the minimal support from other independence organisations (for I am sure, a whole host of reasons, which I won't go into here). 

Pulling this number on to the street was no mean feat. Lack of support and resources were not the only barriers. The Labour-run city council put them up, too. AUOB was asked to have a 1:10 ratio of stewards to demonstrators. Generally, police and local authorities work to 1:75.

When just making an event happen seems like achieving the impossible, it becomes more difficult  to try to measure the actual impact. The rally on Saturday was Glasgow's largest ever pro indy demonstration: larger, in fact, than the ones held in the run up to the vote in 2014. 

However, for movements to matter, success has to be measured and evaluated on more than that mere fact. So, was it a success? Well, there's a few ways to measure success.

The first is to know what the event organisers' objectives were. Bill McKinnon, the main organiser, kindly spent some time talking to me about the demo and here were his objectives:

1.) To allow pro-independence patriots to show their demand and commitment to the cause to Scotland, Westminster and the world press;

2.) To have the determination to achieve the second referendum universally recognised by the sheer numbers taking part in the march;

3.) To counter a recent lull in open activity from the indy movement over the last year with a strong visual statement.

The rally on Saturday was Glasgow's largest ever pro indy demonstration: larger, in fact, than the ones held in the run up to the vote in 2014. 

Even if you don't agree with these objectives, or you question exactly how they can be measured, it is enlightening to know what they were. Using these objectives, the event was a massive success.

The primary way that I would judge the success of an event like this is to look at the event's amplification. Perhaps "only" 17,000 took part, but many more people witnessed the march, as they set about their normal Saturday afternoon in Glasgow.

Thousands of images of the march were retweeted, liked and shared across social media channels. The rally, including some of the speeches and performances from Glasgow Green, were livestreamed by the ever vigilant Independence Live.

Facebook proved an incredible platform with the Independence Live stream; shared over 2,500 times; commented on thousands of times and pulling in over 1,200 views at any one time.

It is not just the quantity, but the type of images that are spread which reinforce the positive messages of a rally. Seeing images of Sikhs playing drums, of kids marching with parents, and of a whole section of Scottish society joining on a peaceful rally, were exceptionally powerful in portraying a positive image of civic nationalism. 

Juxtaposing it to the unionist "meeting" of a handful of flag wavers in George Square was priceless. Demonstrations matter: there is no better way for our movement to be so well framed.

Juxtaposing it to the unionist "meeting" of a handful of flag wavers in George Square was priceless. Demonstrations matter: there is no better way for our movement to be so well framed.

The messages and the meaning of the rally were suitably boosted, for a sustained period after the event, by the attendees, their networks, alternative media (CommonSpace included) and unusually, the UK mainstream media. 

Even the BBC covered the rally, because, with numbers approaching 20,000, it became impossible for media outlets to turn a blind eye. Numbers matter. It is well known in event circles that number of demonstrators correlates directly to column inches and media minutes.

The number of demonstrators that took part, and the huge amplification of the rally, should strengthen our belief in the demonstration as a powerful outlet for a political or social movement. 

It should also give us resolve, post-2017 General Election, to make them bigger and better. As our elected politicians seem to be banging on a closed door, it is likely that we will need them more than ever.

During the General Election campaign Nicola Sturgeon said that "victory for the SNP will force a rethink on a second referendum", suggesting that Theresa May would change her mind (she does like a U-turn) and sanction a second vote in the next couple of years (should she still be in power, of course). 

However, a hand-break turn on this issue should be placed in the exceptionally unlikely category. So what pressure can be put on Westminster? And who can turn the screw? Demonstrators, that's who. Thousands of them.

Election wins and manifesto pledges are seemingly easy for Westminster, and many Scottish politicians, to ignore. Even votes in the Scottish Parliament have little impact. Democracy is clearly being undermined and with that, the express will of the Scottish people. This alone should drive tens of thousands to the streets.

The Westminster-based parties are in unison, ignoring the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament. Ignoring the request for a second referendum is a link in an undemocratic process that is already in chain. 

Post-Brexit, with returning powers from Brussels likely to be swallowed up by Westminster, the devolution settlement will be further weakened. The Tory HQ's charge towards an "internal UK market" will weaken Holyrood's power base in health, justice, transport, education and the environment, to name but a few.

In most European nations, policy is directly affected by street politics much more regularly than in Scotland. However, Scotland is the scene of one of the world's most successful ever demonstrations: Make Poverty History.

Democracy is under threat in Scotland. However, Westminster politicians are building their case on exceptionally shaky ground, and they know it: but they can easily ignore, and fend off other politicians. They can bin newspapers and ignore partisan news reports. 

What they are unable to do is to show the same intransigence in the face of a seriously determined street movement. Just imagine 50,000-plus linking arms around Holyrood to "protect" democracy.

In most European nations, policy is directly affected by street politics much more regularly than in Scotland. However, Scotland is the scene of one of the world's most successful ever demonstrations. 

Only 12 years ago, Edinburgh hosted the Make Poverty History rally, which led to the eventual cancellation of billions of dollars of debt from developing nations, under the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. The Edinburgh demonstration was the cornerstone of a year-long campaign. 

The official post-campaign report praised the demonstration, saying: "The public mobilisation was felt to be the greatest achievement of the campaign." Scotland has an enviable position in terms of forcing change from the streets. In 2005, our voices echoed across the world.

In recent weeks we have all seen the Labour party enjoy success based on rallies and other well attended and widely covered events. Labour has put in place an exceptional live engagement strategy.

In recent weeks we have all seen the Labour party enjoy success based on rallies and other well attended and widely covered events. Labour has put in place an exceptional live engagement strategy, and should it ultimately lose this election, expect this live element of the campaign to continue. 

We should, by now, be getting the hint at what is possible on the streets of the UK, but we can look further afield for inspiration.

Scotland has many similarities with the Catalan independence movement and during a conversation with the head of press relations at the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) we discussed the differences between Scotland and Catalonia in the history of street politics. We agreed on two main factors which help explain why our biggest independence rally attracted 17,000 and theirs drew 1.5 million.

The first is the role of the organisers of the rally. The ANC is a well funded, umbrella organisation, that employs several full time staff. To give you an idea, it spent €300,000 alone on advertising the 2016 demonstration, and the same again on staging, AV, PA, etc. 

Everything about the Catalan demonstrations smacks of professionalism. Its success is built upon the unifying role of the ANC and the professional make up of the lead organisation.

We should, by now, be getting the hint at what is possible on the streets of the UK.

You can't fault the passion and the determination of the All Under One Banner team, but as a non-revenue generating, voluntary organisation, its resources are exceptionally limited. With so many barriers to overcome it was, unfortunately, unable to end the rally in any kind of satisfactory manner for the demonstrators or, as importantly, for the cameras. 

With the march thinning out on Glasgow Green, the tiny stage and tinny PA provided a destination that the marchers did not expect nor deserve, accompanied by - it was June in Glasgow - near torrential rain.

The Catalan and the Scottish rallies also differ in the subtlety of the message that is transmitted. It was #LoveDemocracy that was initially at the heart of the Catalan movement, not independence per se. From the outset in 2012, members of the Catalan National Assembly knew that an organisation which called for the "respect of democracy" had a wider appeal than one focusing on independence.

Over the years, the message from the ANC has solidified, to almost exclusively calling for independence. However, for many, it is the idea of those in Madrid telling Barcelona what to do that is the driver for their support. 

Chat to a Catalan in the street and they are as likely to say "I want to decide, not Madrid", as they are to say, "I will vote for independence". The ANC has been on a journey focused on democracy, not independence.

Perhaps if our elected politicians and our democratic establishments are unable to put the pressure on the UK Government, it is time for the people, unified and determined, to do something. 

Opinion polls have consistently shown that a larger proportion of Scots are in favour of Westminster not having the right to block a plan for a referendum than they are in favour of independence. The democratic deficit coming our way will continue to increase the former above the latter.

In Scotland, until this General Election, calls for a referendum from our elected officials seemed the most likely way to bring about a choice to decide our constitutional future.  

Perhaps now, with democracy under threat, the baton should be handed over to the people, and the message they should carry should not be one demanding independence, but democracy.

Democracy is "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people". Perhaps if our elected politicians and our democratic establishments are unable to put the pressure on the UK Government, it is time for the people, unified and determined, to do something. 

Fancy attending a rally that's a bit bigger, and does something a bit different?

Pictures: CommonSpace

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Comments

MauriceBishop

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 15:14

"in September 2014, 1,617,989 people voted for Scottish independence"

And over 2 million voted to stay in the union.

And everyone on both sides cast their vote having been told repeatedly by Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the Yes campaign that we were settling the matter for a generation.

geacher

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 16:20

"....So what pressure can be put on Westminster? And who can turn the screw? Demonstrators, that's who. Thousands of them.........This alone should drive tens of thousands to the streets.........Just imagine 50,000-plus linking arms around Holyrood to "protect" democracy."
You lot should be ashamed of yourself. We had a vote and you lost, and with support for another referendum falling by the day you would drag us through another one, and to what purpose?
"Democracy is "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people". Perhaps if our elected politicians and our democratic establishments are unable to put the pressure on the UK Government, it is time for the people, unified and determined, to do something....Fancy attending a rally that's a bit bigger, and does something a bit different" and there is the implied threat, if we don't get what we want, we will take to the streets...and you call that "democracy"?

jaydeeess

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 20:22

democracy /di-mokˈrə-si/
noun (also formerly (Milton) democˈraty)
A form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people collectively, and is administered by them or by officers appointed by them
The common people
A state of society characterized by recognition of equality of rights and privileges for all people
Political, social or legal equality
(usu with cap) the Democratic party (archaic; US)
ORIGIN: Fr démocratie, from Gr dēmokratiā, from dēmos the people, and kratos strength
Marches and rallies seem to fit quite well into the concept of demonstrating the strength of the people and their approval or otherwise of the officers who are exerting power on their behalf.

MauriceBishop

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 20:57

@jaydees

2 million Scots voted for the continuance of the Union in 2014, and in all 3.6 million Scots took part in the vote, having been assured several times by Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the the Yes campaign that they were settling the matter for a generation, with no caveats.

Compared to that, you marches and rallies are a demonstration of weakness.

We are in the phase now where Common Weal, like the SNP, will carry on with a sham, because it is what keeps them from having to find a real job.

Bill White

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 09:19

Geacher,
Most of the freedoms and rights which we enjoy today (e.g. votes for women, employment rights & conditions) have been won by protest and dissent on the streets.
Peaceful demonstration is an entirely valid form of democracy. Wanting it to stop just because you disagree with the aims of a particular group of demonstrators would be undemocratic.

You are correct that the 2014 referendum was lost by the "Yes" side. That result was indeed respected and Scotland remains part of the UK. Expecting those you disagree with to give up their aims and politics and to shut up about what they want is undemocratic and a form of oppression.

In an open, democratic society there will always be people you disagree with, that's life.

If you are confident that support for independence is "falling by the day" then another referendum can do no harm at all. All you have to do is nip down to your local primary school or community hall to vote. It takes 30 mins, what's the problem with that?

By the way, our democratically elected parliament recently voted to seek another referendum. Will you respect that vote and welcome another opportunity to have your voice heard?

geacher

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 10:42

ForJaydeeess: "Marches and rallies seem to fit quite well into the concept of demonstrating the strength of the people and their approval or otherwise of the officers who are exerting power on their behalf."
Fine, no problem with marches and rallies, I had zero issues with the march in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago. What the author of that despicable blog was talking about was "And who can turn the screw?
.Demonstrators, that's who. " Demonstrations are NOT marches and rallies.Then there is that implied threat right at the end of the post.
Bill, I'm not sure that I'd agree with the "protest and dissent on the streets." as being a valid tool today, not with the multi media networking that we can do nowadays, but is the implied threat that I find alarming. We had a referendum and your argument that an indyref2 will take "30 minutes" is not in any way valid or appropriate...it would be ANOTHER 18 months of rancour and anger, further dividing our country. But let's cut to the chase. If there is another referendum in 2019, the result would still be *no*.. you know this and I know this. Polls consistently show that support for independence is falling albeit slightly, so what is the point? Would you want another referendum in 2015, another 30 minute pop down to the local community hall? Where will it end?

williamthomsion

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 14:44

Despicable blog post author here. Attending a rally, march or demonstration is a right in all democracies. So is continuing to call for something that other people have decided is a bad idea. There certainly is a threat, a threat to our democracy.

thehug0naut

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 17:35

"...everyone on both sides cast their vote having been told repeatedly by Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of the Yes campaign that we were settling the matter for a generation."

And then in 2016 England and Wales voted to leave the EU while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The voice of Scotland was ignored and disrespected for all to clearly see.

The SNP ran for Holyrood with a promise that material change in circumstance would put independence back on the table. Our parliament voted to have a referendum so we should have one. It is now only a matter of an appropriate time relative to Brexit.

MauriceBishop

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 19:37

@thehug0naut

How was "the voice of Scotland was ignored and disrespected for all to clearly see"? Scotland cannot be "in" the EU while England and Wales are out of it. What you are really saying is that unless Scottish votes are weighted 10X or 20X more than English vote, you will feel aggrieved.

The SNP ran for Holyrood with a promise that material change in circumstance would put independence back on the table.

One version of their manifesto said that. Other versions did not.

Furthermore, that election saw them reduced to a minority government propped up by six regional list Greens who said in their manifesto that they'd need to see 1 million signatures on a petition before they'd support a do-over.

These claims of a mandate are spurious nonsense and the SNP are going to get a kicking today because of it.

MauriceBishop

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 19:40

@williamthomsion

Nobody argues that you don't have a right to dress up and march around.

The issue is that you think that if a minority of a minority are willing to do it often, and loudly, that somehow counts for more than the votes of 3.6 million Scots who went to the polling stations in 2014 having been assured that they were settling the matter for a generation.

The threat to our democracy is people like you who refuse to accept an outcome that didn't go your way.

jaydeeess

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 06:43

Say it often enough and you'll come to believe it. People voiced an opinion that 2014 was a once in a generation chance to re-establish an independent country. What was assured very publicly was Scotland could only remain in the EU by staying in the UK and that the UK would become as near to a Federation as it is possible to get when one of the countries involved is much larger than the rest. Neither of these has come about. The Referendum was won on a false promise, known as The Vow, and therefore it is perfectly legitimate to call for a fresh consultation once the terms of Brexit are known. All the other members if the EU will be asked for their opinion. Why not the UK itself and, in particular, Scotland?

geacher

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 11:49

I suppose that I should ask you exactly what part of the Vow wasn't kept, but what is the point? Last night has shown that indy is dead in Scotland...for a least a dozen SNP generations....

MauriceBishop

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 15:10

@jaydeeess

Go out for a cup of coffee with Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond today and the three of you can chat about how right you are.

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