As I See It: Terry Murden
There could be no mistaking the mood in Glasgow yesterday. If you weren’t carrying a flag you were probably selling one, or maybe a bunnet, a facemask or a placard (somebody, somewhere is making a packet out of all this indy paraphernalia).
An estimated 80,000 hardy souls braved the rubbish weather to march for independence, for the EU, for the Scottish nation, and most obviously against Boris Johnson, the Tories and London rule. Yes, this is divisive and, for the most part good-natured, though some of the messages were not of the sort you would want your grannie to see.
Despite the huge turnout it didn’t make the late BBC television news from London, which, in its own way, helps explain why it took place. The marchers claim that Scotland is ignored, overlooked, sidelined. If this march was taking place in Paris, Barcelona or Tehran would it have been on the “national” news? Probably. The review of the papers from the BBC’s London newsrooms focused on the Royal rift, making no mention of matters north of the border. So the BBC, by its own decision not to cover the event for its UK bulletins, helps fuel the frustration and anger.
More importantly is how Mr Johnson and the UK government responds. Those who have seen the march reported locally and on social media will have noticed a counter-demonstration by unionists. It was much smaller but should not be dismissed as irrelevant. Some were bearing placards reminding those waving saltires, and proclaiming a right to self-rule, that opinion polls still show a majority in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK.
The small, almost invisible, showing of union support on the streets of Scotland is a largely-unexplained factor in the constitutional fall-out. A torch is being put to 300 years of history while the unionists do little to extinguish the potential conflagration around us.
The union case is not helped by the shambolic Labour party which doesn’t seem to know on which side of the fence it wants to sit. Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard is desperately trying to find a consensus among differing views that threaten to split his party or else edge it further towards the political wilderness.
One reason the union argument barely breaks out beyond the Holyrood chamber, the febrile rants on Twitter or the decreasingly relevant letters pages of the newspapers is that people rarely demonstrate for things to stay as they are. Defending the status quo does not create the same sense of outrage as the need to stop something, or force change. No one marches to say thanks to their employer for giving them a decent salary, or for providing enough jobs to support a public service. They only march to protest against something they regard as wrong or unjust.
The weekend march was hijacked by an unsavoury element who think it is reasonable to refer to the Tories as “scum” and other unprintable descriptions. These people demean the independence cause and it is for right-thinking nationalists to distance themselves from this behaviour, or else define a future Scotland as an intolerant and brutal nation. For the most part, the 80,000 marchers – and all other marchers – represent a significant voice, a vocal and physical reminder that the nationalists have a case that must be heard.
But the polls tell us that there are potentially more who represent the silent majority, those who choose not to march, dress up and hurl abuse at politicians. Their voice is just as relevant and in a second referendum they will fancy their chances of once again putting the argument to bed.
However, the unionists cannot take the polls for granted and will need to raise their game. It will require Mr Johnson and his government to answer their critics directly. Jackboot unionism that appears threatening and almost colonial merely stokes frustration and resentment.
In recent years there has been a realisation by the Tories that if they actually respond to the public’s demands they will get a favourable response. Former Chancellor George Osborne’s invention of the Northern Powerhouse was a start and is now likely be backed in the first instance by improvements to the transport system. Tory MPs were elected in former Labour safe seats in the north of England because they answered the Brexit call: another result for the party. Mr Johnson now knows he cannot afford to stop there, or those seats will be lost next time around.
Scotland is the other northern battleground for the Tories. Adopting the tactics of King Edward’s army won’t work. It will come partly in the shape of investment in public services and infrastructure, which Mr Johnson has promised but has yet to spell out. It must include outlining the case for a single UK market, while giving some consideration to such things as variable interest rates and corporation taxes to suit different market circumstances.
A fundamental requirement is to understand that the Scottish question requires a different answer to that posed by the north of England.
The two nations may have been partners over three centuries but they have different cultures, different ways of doing things and different values. It is the increasing dominance of one over the other that has sewn the seeds of separation. A failure to acknowledge this and find a means to embrace the disaffected will see the nationalist cause grow and the cries for independence become louder.