“We don’t need another referendum. We need a fucking revolution. We’re on our way to one.”
I was standing on the fringes of George Square, renamed “Freedom Square” for the day, eavesdropping on a conversation between two student-looking sorts who, like thousands of others, had come for the Hope over Fear rally.
Hosted by former Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan, the pro-independence event featured an array of speakers with varying degrees of name recognition and credibility.
Pop-feminist Naomi Wolf, author of Vagina: A New Biography, appeared in her latest role as the intellectual doyenne of conspiracism. Ms Wolf has an admirable facility for juggling a number of crackpot notions at once and amid the current mix is her belief that the independence referendum was rigged. (She’s a barcode truther rather than a tampered ballot box theorist, in case you’re wondering.)
The star of the show, of course, was Tommy, self-conceived fallen idol of the proletariat — the People’s Perjurer. He denounced Gordon Brown, Jackie Baillie, and the whole neoliberal clanjamphry of Tory running dogs that constitutes Scottish Labour.
To hear Sheridan speak is to be reminded that his is the socialism of the soapbox. It’s like listening to Marx being read aloud by a particularly unctuous bingo caller in the beach front arcade of a third-rate seaside town.
His most memorable utterance was to tell the crowd: “Independence is a reality,” a radical interpretation of the referendum result.
The remainder of the day’s speeches concentrated on the manifold wickedness of Westminster, the hated mainstream media, and Lucifer himself, Jim Murphy. One man in the crowd held aloft a placard with mock-ups of the heads of Unionist politicians on spikes with “TRAITORS” scrawled underneath. Another waved a sign proclaiming “45% my arse”. “End London rule” screamed a banner. Somewhere along the way the hope memo had got lost.
As is often the case at such events, the people assembled were much more compelling, and entertaining, than anyone on the stage.
“First we get independence, then we go for a republic,” one man said.
“Aye, I can’t stand the monarchy,” his friend replied.
Both were waving Lion Rampant flags.
As I milled around, I was struck by the uneasy mix of hope and fear that I heard. Maledictions were directed at No voters and incredulity expressed that anyone could “vote against their own country”.
The talk at the stalls for the various far-Left factions — an earnest young man patiently tried to explain to a curious woman the difference between the Socialist Party Scotland and the Scottish Socialist Party — was of a Yes/Left unity alliance for the general and Scottish elections.
I heard others talk positively about building the pro-independence movement by reaching out to No voters. One older lady — obviously not one of the hated sexagenarian sellouts — made me chuckle with her running commentary on Sheridan’s fulminations. “Aye, yer good at the talkin’ Tommy, but no’ much fur the gettin’ ‘hings done.”
As a political journalist, it was invigorating to see what, by my rough estimate, was six or seven thousand people take to the streets for a political rally. For all their animosity towards the mainstream media, some Yes activists would be surprised to learn how optimistic it makes jaded hacks feel to have mass participation back in politics.
Still, I badly wanted the rally to be more than it was. I became fascinated by the Yes movement while reporting on it over the past few years. That is not intended to express a political or constitutional preference but merely to provide context for the disappointment I felt on Sunday.
Only the most churlish of journalists could have followed this big, unwieldy, organic movement; this new energy buzzing through a nation; this sometimes frustrating, often impressive, and occasionally inspiring human tapestry — and not been moved by it.
Better Together — a campaign brimming with conscientious and patriotic Scots, however much that fact might irk the less tolerant on the Yes side — could not match its opponents for passion, creativity, and innovation.
It won the referendum but failed to electrify the campaign. Perhaps that doesn’t matter; maybe victory is all there is. But the changes we have seen and continue to see — a repoliticised Scotland, 55,000 new SNP members, a radically different electoral map emerging — suggest otherwise.
The Yes movement is not a revolution. It is a democratic uprising, power rent from the elites, politics in living colour. The SNP, as a centrist party of government, has elections to win and it will decide its policy and rhetoric on a second referendum accordingly.
Of course, this rally wasn’t organised by the SNP, but it might be a glimpse of the SNP’s future or the challenge it faces to hold centre amidst the influx of tens of thousands of new left-wing members.
There is people power and there is political power and it is the SNP’s purpose to secure the latter.
The grassroots is encumbered by no such calculations. They won’t be giving up, putting up, or shutting up any time soon. The Yes campaign was defeated in the referendum but the Yes movement carries on.
Yet, in political terms, Sunday’s rally can be seen as a failure. Yes campaigners are in danger of repeating the fatal mistake of the referendum campaign: Talking to themselves and calling it activism. And many, though by no means all, seemed angry, catcalling and booing every mention of their opponents. I heard the word “traitors” muttered in conversation more often than anyone in the SNP leadership would wish.
Anger is a potent force in politics but a finite one. It burns furiously at first but can’t be sustained in the long term. Take the example of Ukip. The populist party is enjoying its moment in the spotlight as Lower Middle England’s favoured tell-it-like-it-is party, a position it has earned by poking at every social wound on the body politic.
Immigrants are swamping Britain. Brussels bureaucrats push us around. The mainstream parties can’t be trusted.
It is the snarl to Westminster’s sneer.
Most people aren’t permanently aggrieved, and when they can sustain anger it is about family feuds or nosy neighbours or a rival football team, not politics. That is why Ukip, if it wishes to become a serious player in UK politics, will have to go beyond telling people to be outraged and say what it plans to do about it.
The Yes movement on the whole practises a very different brand of nationalism to the insular jingoism of Ukip. Nonetheless, it should guard against retreading the angry path Nigel Farage’s party has cut.
No voters’ minds might be changed if Yes campaigners reach out to them constructively. Models for this include organisations like Women for Independence, Radical Independence, and the Common Weal. The 55% are not traitors or knaves or fools; they are simply Scots who think differently.
What I saw on the way to the revolution was a lot of good people enjoying each other’s company, watching their children play together, fussing over each other’s dogs. The human face of Yes. But I also saw anger and resentment and impotent grievance that all too often consumes radical movements.
I saw a gathering not of the 45% but 0.45% of the 45%, the hardcore of the independence movement. I heard much about the obvious bounties of independence and manifest injustices of the Union. I saw and heard little that would convince No voters to switch to Yes next time.
For the Nationalist leadership, the challenge is to harness and help direct this political energy without dominating or being dominated by it.
This mass engagement cannot be allowed to fizzle out or the positive, aspirational message of the Yes campaign to turn sour. To win the prize of independence, it needs to reach beyond the parameters of “Freedom Square” to the shoppers going about their everyday lives on Buchanan Street.
As I began to leave, I noticed a white van festooned with more Saltires than Ibrox on Saturday circling Freedom Square, in an almost demented lap of celebration for an inscrutable victory.
It seemed an apt, depressing metaphor for a rally that went nowhere except round in circles.
Originally published on STV News.