WATCHING FOOTAGE of Saturday's march for independence in Edinburgh I found myself contemplating Hugh MacDiarmid's waspish assertion that the chief problem with Scotland is that there's no-one worth shooting. It often seems as though we are an apathetic nation. As nationalists struggled to fill one section of Princes Street Gardens, I wondered if this was all the independence movement could offer. It seemed silly to be spooked or otherwise afraid of these people, far less suppose they enjoy the backing of history and destiny. Is that it?
Doubtless this is all very scurrilous but when you're march for history proves less popular than a Hibs match there may not be much history made. How many battalions does Alex Salmond really have? Fewer than might be expected or, at least, relatively few that can be put into the field in any sort of condition fit for battle.
A crowd of between five and ten thousand people is pretty pathetic. It's not just the obvious comparison to be drawn with recent marches in Barcelona which have attracted hundreds of thousands of Catalans onto the streets that makes this independence effort seem miserably small-time. Is our great constitutional debate so dull so soon that even the true believers can't become enthused by it? Perhaps so.
Which, if this is the case, leaves one to wonder what happens if you ask a question and no-one answers? The stakes are, notionally at least, higher than they've ever been and yet one detects a certain weariness already. And this is before the terms and conditions for the race have even been fixed. There's another two years of this.
Perhaps people are settling in for the long haul or will begin to pay attention properly in the final six months of the campaign. But it must be considered possible that there is less enthusiasm for constitutional wrestling than either politicians or the press imagine there should be.
Other commitments prevented me from attending Saturday's march. By all accounts everyone present enjoyed themselves. Of course they would. This was a meeting of true believers. No-one swithering betwixt the Union and independence was likely to have been persuaded by Saturday's mini-march. So who was it for and what was it supposed to achieve?
I dare say some nationalists think the rally advanced their cause. To the extent it made any difference at all I suspect that's a deluded notion and the kind of thing you have to work hard at to persuade yourself the line you're spinning is a sturdy, credible thing. On the contrary, I suspect the march hurt the independence cause a little.
Not because there's anything wrong with marching but because the sparse attendance made nationalism seem suddenly small. Is that it? Really? If Team Independence cannot rally more than 7,000 (or so) folk to the saltire then how do they think they're going to win a plebiscite? It was all rather like discovering that behind the curtain the Wizard of Oz was no kind of omnipotent potentate but instead just a wee old man of the sort you'll find in pubs or on buses all over the country. Just another guy.
For a long time now the SNP have had the most effective, polished political operation in Scotland. They have created the idea of independence as a journey made by a nation thirsting to be born again. There has been a freshness and an energy to their politics that has helped them run rings around their Unionist opposition.
This is why Saturday's march mattered a little more than you might think: it showed that the nationalists are not as numerous as they might like you to think they are. Nor is it inevitable that Scotland will continue its "journey" to independence. Had the nationalist movement put 250,000 souls onto the streets of Edinburgh the message would have been unmistakable: Destiny awaits! Even the dullest Unionist could see that. If this is true (and it is) then so is the converse. Saturday showed that destiny might yet be delayed and, anyway, that it's nothing more than a fringe enthusiasm.
That's the problem with this rally. It made nationalists and nationalism look small. An esoteric, eccentric pursuit that, considered rationally, is close to ridiculous. A kind of souped-up political train-spotting, if you like.
This could have been avoided. There was no need for Alex Salmond to address this rally. Doing so gave the assembly an importance not warranted by the number of folk actually marching. It ensured the SNP would be tied to an event it did not actually organise.
This, of course, is the nationalist's best card. They can claim, with some plausibility, that a rally organised by the SNP and Yes Scotland would surely have been a better attended, more impressive affair. Perhaps it would have been. Which leaves one to wonder why the party did not organise a rally itself or, had it decided not to hold a rally, why it did not distance itself from the rally actually being organised. Putting the First Minister up to speak ensured the official nationalists couldn't walk away from the rally.
Doubtless lessons will be learned. I fancy the SNP - in a state of some anxiety prior to Saturday's assembly - will be better prepared next time and that there'll be a more professional sheen to future rallies for independence. For their sakes there had better be. Otherwise they're going to look like small-timers.
Finally: a plea to everyone. Can we drop all references to "the Scottish spring"? It's a sentiment that's grotesque on any number of levels. So much so, in fact, that those using it come close to persuading one that McDiarmid was mistaken since there are at least some people who deserve shooting.