In a blur of flag waving fervour, hopeful idealism, and later despondency, the “Yes” campaigners partying all night in George Square, Glasgow as the results came through, provided the world with the defining images of the Scottish referendum campaign. On Sunday, thousands of independence supporters flocked back to the square in a bid to recapture the Yes spirit. Unfortunately, the rally was a vehicle for the career of a dodgy politician, and there were a fair few conspiracy theorists knocking about.
Before the vote it had been easy to be convinced that the referendum was already won by the Yes campaign – such was its domination of the social media and Glasgow’s streets. When it turned out that wasn’t the case, sadness turned to anger, with the days after the result seeing a flurry of protests and tribal “the 45 percent” campaign events appear on social media – referring to the percentage that Yes polled.
There were calls to get organised and find other means of defeating the Tories, Labour and/or the Act of Union, with a mass uptake in membership of pro-independence parties. It was fertile ground for conspiracy theories too, with a captive audience of people who were pissed off, disillusioned with the media, and looking for answers. As ever, they were easily found in the form of questionable Youtube footage from users called things like “NWO Elite Agenda”.
Sunday was the biggest gathering of pro-indy supporters since the referendum, with thousands returning to George Square for a “Hope Over Fear” gathering over the afternoon.
The rally was called, compered and fronted by Tommy Sheridan, a former poster boy of the Scottish left who fell from grace. Over the last decade, Sheridan has variously torn a successful left unity party – the Scottish Socialist Party – in two, because his comrades wouldn't lie to protect his image as a family man in court, spent a year in jail for perjury, appeared on Celebrity Big Brother and been embroiled in a “swinging sex” scandal.
Numerous groups are jostling for position in the post-indyref landscape, and this rally appeared to be Sheridan’s bid to seize some of the momentum. Despite his misdemeanours, he retains a sizeable fan base. But having been frozen out of much of the independence movement, he’s also keen to have his reputation rehabilitated, presumably with an eye on future elections.
Lining up alongside Sheridan were a disparate mix of Scottish soap stars, samey acoustic acts playing Caledonia for the sixth time that day, a band called ISIS, a gangland enforcer turned celebrity crime writer and any number of local tub thumpers who could rile up the crowd for a few minutes at a time. Usually, rallies like this are what people impatiently mill about at for half an hour before they find an excuse to go to the pub, but this was a full-on five hour thrill fest of defiant rhetoric, flag waving, conspiracy theorising and, just for the kids, a fairground ride or two.
Sellers of tartan tat were doing a roaring trade around the square, their gaudy merchandise proving considerably more popular than the plethora of socialist sects who they were competing with. Playing to his audience, Sheridan had also decided to rename the area as “Freedom Square” for the day, just to firm up his nationalist credentials and keep the Mel Gibson references coming even after the referendum is over.
Also making an appearance was Naomi Wolf, the American feminist writer and activist. Wolf’s public Facebook page is a curious place, an unrestrained stream of consciousness in which she offers up her unconventional take on current events. In recent weeks, Wolf has been publicising allegations of irregularities in the referendum, becoming a conduit for those who think they had their vote stolen from them by the long arms of the British state, which in some way fixed the electoral process.
This primarily involves the notion that thousands of ballot papers didn’t contain a Unique Identifying Number (UIN) on their reverse. This is a barcode on each ballot that links back to individual voters on the electoral roll, as a method of preventing fraud. However, hundreds of people are now claiming that their ballots were “blank” and missing a UIN. Weirdly no one seems to have realised until after the referendum results came out, and no ballots were rejected at the counts for this reason.
A placard held by someone who doesn't believe the voting results to be true
Wolf arrived in Scotland to hand over a dossier of nearly 500 names she’s collected of people who are resolute that they cast a vote without a UIN. As it happens, I know my ballot paper did have a barcode, but I can’t remember many other details about voting, like what colour the wallpaper was or the kind of pen I used. People generally go to the polling station to vote rather than play tedious memory games, so it seems astonishing that lots of voters have suddenly remembered a fairly minor detail about what the reverse of their ballot looked like.
I spoke with Wolf just after she had made her intervention at the rally, and she was adamant that this remains a live issue, despite her claims being written off by the Lawyers for Yes group as, “an impressive collection of misunderstandings, conspiracy theories, and legal howlers”.
“I’ve got some pretty incredible people self-identifying as having these ballots. People are reporting that police officers are saying their ballot was blank. Multiple members of the same family got blank ballots, and couples where one got a blank ballot and the other not,” she told me. “What’s odd to me is that everyone who is supposed to be looking into it just isn’t willing to. What’s the big deal? Open them up, then we’ll know quickly.”
Wolf was also keen to stress that she’s not prejudiced towards a particular outcome in the referendum, and is acting out of concern for the democratic process, and for those who feel they’ve been disenfranchised. “I’m not a Yes supporter. I’m not a Scottish voter… I love Scotland but this is not about Scotland. I would be as upset if it was any other country or any other issue.”
She was also willing to brush off criticisms that have been made of her uninhibited investigative style in recent months. “If there’s evidence it doesn’t matter what people say about me personally. If there are stories that need to be investigated based on the evidence, that’s my decision.” When it comes to the blank ballots, however, few are interested beyond the fringes of the Yes movement – Wolf said that she’s had little success getting either the Electoral Commission or police to pursue the claims.
A diverse crowd of several thousand kept spirits high throughout Sunday’s rally, often taking the entertainment into their own hands, with impromptu speeches from people hauling themselves up onto statues. However, if the plan was to recreate the buzz around the square in the run up to polling day, it was a losing battle: Scotland isn’t on the verge of going independent anymore, whether the people in the square liked it or not.
Nevertheless, some of the biggest cheers throughout the day were reserved for speakers who gave increasingly zany predictions of how quickly Scotland can become independent. Breaking ranks with his party’s official line, one SNP councillor, Pat Lee, was adamant that if enough SNP MPs are returned at the General Election, the party will have a mandate to simply declare Scotland’s independence unilaterally. There’s no point in even getting into how mad this idea is, because it’s simply not going to happen.
Tens of thousands of people have been brought into politics for the first time through the referendum and their desire for change is still palpable. But I can’t help thinking that an obsession with Unique Identifying Numbers and Unilateral Declarations of Independence is, at best, a distraction and a dead end. But the thousands who showed up at “Freedom Square” on Sunday are likely to stay energised for a while yet, and it’s anyone’s guess where that goes.
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