Scottish independence demonstrations and how to make them matter

Scottish Independence demonstrations can make a real difference. They just have to be bigger and better.

(article originally appeared, without links, on CommonSpace)

So what? Around 17,000 people (splitting the difference between police and organiser estimates) gave up part of a Saturday afternoon to demonstrate in favour of a second independence referendum. Let’s put that into some context. With an average of 750 people visiting a Starbucks each day, almost as many Glaswegians had a coffee in the twenty, 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 1% of that constituency on to the streets. 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 1% 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. All Under One Banner were 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 are 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. The massive show of determination to achieve the second referendum will be universally recognised by the sheer numbers taking part in the March. We are hoping for 20,000.

3 . There has been a lull in open activity from the Indy movement over the past year. This March shows that our determination is stronger than ever.”

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 learn of the events amplification. Perhaps “only” 17,000 took part, but a lot more people witnessed the march, as they set about their normal Saturday afternoon in Glasgow. 1000s 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 live streamed by the ever vigilant Independence Live. Facebook proved an incredible platform with the Independence Live stream; shared over 2500 times; commented on thousand of times and had over 1200 views at any one time.

It is not just the quantity, but the type of images that are spread that 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.

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 main stream 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 correlate 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 GE2017, 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 street.

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.  Tory HQs 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.

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 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 twelve years ago, Edinburgh hosted the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY rally, that 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 corner stone of a year long campaign. The official post campaign report praised the demonstration, “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 have success based on rallies and other well attended and widely covered events. Labour have put in place an exceptional live engagement strategy, and should they ultimately lose, 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 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 1,500,000.

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, 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.

You can’t fault the passion and the determination of the All Under One Banner team, but as a non-revenue generating, voluntary organisation, their resources are exceptionally limited. With so many barriers to overcome they were, 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 or deserve, accompanied by – it was June in Glasgow – near torrential rain.

How to end a rally without any resources

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 call 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 have been on a journey focussed on democracy, not independence.

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 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?

If you are interested in contributing to my work on a live engagement strategy for the YES movement please get in touch.

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