I'M NOT REALLY the marching type. I think I’ve been on about three in my lifetime; an anti-Poll Tax demo as a kid, an anti-tuition fees march when I was a student, and the anti-Iraq War demonstration in Glasgow back in 2003. I accompanied my Dad on the first, went on the second to get a free bus trip to Edinburgh (oh, what a cynic), and attended the third as a journalistic observer.
What did any of them achieve? In short, not very much; the Poll Tax was on its way out even before rioting hit London in 1990; tuition fees were introduced anyway (though later scrapped); and the Iraq war continued in spite of massive protests in London and Scotland. That isn’t to say all three marches weren’t important, they were, but the impact of political marches are often overstated.
And so it was with Saturday’s independence march in Edinburgh. The turnout was respectable (somewhere between the 5,000 estimated by police and the 10,000 claimed by some of those present), the atmosphere convivial and the weather good; Alex Salmond made an engaging speech and, judging from twitter (as I had to from the Imperial Capital), everyone present – including my Dad – had a good time.
But that, dare I say it, is where the impact of such an event begins and ends. The turnout – assuming the upper end of guestimates – was only half that of the SNP’s total membership, and although other groups were present, it is likely that most marchers were members of the SNP. In other words, Salmond et alwere preaching to the converted.
The turnout in Edinburgh has also been much compared to a recent rally for independence in Barcelona. This is probably unfair, for marching is virtually in the Spanish DNA, while support for Catalonian statehood has – of late – been increasing rapidly. That said, even if turnout has been grossly exaggerated (some reports said 1.5 million people) it seems likely that hundreds of thousands of people marched through the Catalan capital.
Margo MacDonald had a nice line in her speech on Saturday that everyone who already supports independence has to persuade just one more person to vote “yes” and then they’ll be home and dry. If only (from a Nationalist perspective) it were that easy, for one of the remarkable things about the constitutional debate is that Scottish public opinion seems virtually immovable.
As the recent British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) showed, the percentage of Scots backing independence remains around a third. Sure, this goes up and down, but averaged out over the past few decades it hasn’t significantly increased. Although Saturday’s march was a modest success – not least because it kept independence in the news – the likelihood of it having persuaded any undecided voters to vote “yes” is very slim.
It suits the First Minister, of course, to give the impression of momentum. On Saturday he spoke again of “completing” Scotland’s Home Rule journey and the fact that the “most popular option” was for the Scottish Parliament to “make all the decisions”. In other words the most popular option (again this came from the BSAS) is a form of devo-max. In other words the most popular constitutional option is not independence.
But the very fact that Salmond has to contrive rhetorical momentum for independence rather illustrates the fact that it does not, at the moment, already exist. It was also quite telling that the Edinburgh march was not initiated by either the SNP or YesScotland, but by Jeff Duncan of another outfit called Independence for Scotland. Naturally, when it grew legs both the SNP and YesScotland piggybacked, but it was nevertheless odd that without Mr Duncan there wouldn’t have been a demo at all.
So where does all this leave the referendum campaign? Pretty much where it’s been since the “yes” and “no” campaigns launched earlier this year, a bit of a political charade; on something as big as this no amount of campaigning – however slick – is realistically going to change many minds. The job of both campaigns is to consolidate and motivate their existing support.
Doing that and maintaining “momentum” for two-and-a-half years was always going to be tough, although the delayed timescale is entirely down to the First Minister. It was quite revealing that when Salmond asked at Saturday’s rally, “what do we want?” (crowd: “independence!”), he then failed to ask the usual follow up of “when do we want it?”, instead substituting, “how are we going to vote?”
Of course they said “yes!”, but then the converted can be relied upon to answer such questions properly. Salmond also claimed that “more than” 100,000 people had now signed the Independence Declaration, a figure that’s (tellingly) yet to be verified. Again it was designed to indicate momentum. But can Eck & Co keep this up for another two years? I’m beginning to have my doubts, no matter how many marches there are.
Photo: Courtesy of the Daily Record