Saturday's Scottish Independence Rally in Glasgow Was a Weird Subcultural Side-Show
A year after the independence referendum, the "Hope Over Fear" movement is the awkward sibling of mainstream Scottish nationalism.
Last week was an emotional one for supporters of Scottish independence, with Friday marking exactly a year since the referendum that saw Scotland vote to remain within the UK. The Yes badges and posters that were impossible to avoid in 2014 have started to reappear, while social media has experienced a deluge of everyone reminding themselves exactly what they were doing a year ago.
But with the notable exception of seven members of UKIP – who spent Friday launching a campaign to see the 18th of September rebranded "Union Day" – supporters of the union have kept themselves pretty quiet over the past few days, perhaps because it still doesn't feel like they really won.
With the SNP continuing to dominate Scottish politics, polls showing a majority backing independence, and even Scottish Labour moderating their opposition to it, for some Yes campaigners, Scotland breaking from the union seems more like a question of when rather than if. It was in George Square in Glasgow on Saturday – the same place that provided many of the iconic images of the referendum campaign – that thousands of nationalists gathered for a "one year on" rally. Having got over both their initial grief and a onetime obsession with conspiracy theories about how Yes had definitely won, most indy diehards are now focusing on one thing alone: securing a second referendum.
The SNP, however, are taking a cautious approach to a second bid for independence, and although they'll continue to make noises about it, are unlikely to rush into anything until they're positive it can be won. But in delaying the dream of indy, particularly if they don't include it in their 2016 manifesto, they're risking the wrath of a sizeable minority of their own support – a nationalist subculture that was out in force on Saturday.
The rally was billed as "Hope Over Fear, One Year On" and fronted by Tommy Sheridan, a disgraced former MSP who spent most of the day shouting on stage as he introduced the dozens of speakers, bands and Gaelic rappers we were treated to over the course of the eight hour nationalist marathon. Having been embroiled in a sex-and-lying scandal in the mid-2000s, Sheridan's track record includes destroying the Scottish Socialist Party, going on Celebrity Big Brother and being jailed for lying in court. He's since enjoyed an indyref revival and built up a substantial fan base, mostly through a lot of shouting and telling his audience exactly what they want to hear (although the subtext usually involves voting for him in next year's Scottish elections).
I arrived a couple of hours into the rally. Thankfully, this was just in time to catch James Scott, the leader of the Scottish Resistance group, whose speech angled in on what are surely the most pressing concerns of Scotland's electorate: being proud of the facts we "repelled the Vikings, the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons" in centuries gone by, casting out "traitors", and stopping the "robbery" of "water, whisky revenue and oil" that's flowing over the border to England. It was like a parody of everything people say to discredit the independence movement, except it was really happening. This kind of dodgy pseudo-ethnic nationalism was never given any prominence ahead of the referendum, and certainly never given a platform, so it was alarming to see it being cheered along on the fringes of the Yes movement.
Scott's speech wasn't the only contortion of history on show, although the other examples were fortunately more innocuous. Visible for most of the day was a sign alleging to feature a quote from William Wallace about having the courage to follow your heart. Having been unaware that the 13th century warrior had a sideline in Instagram-friendly quotable wisdom, I looked into a bit further, and it turns out to have been something his dad said – at least his fictional dad in the film Braveheart.
Early in the afternoon, some real-life invaders did appear. Two former BNP candidates (although now members of hugely successful electoral outfit the Britannica Party) arrived at the back of the square, waving union jacks and trying to goad the crowd into a reaction. The police intervened and despite, an initial reluctance to leave, the fascist double-act that appears to form the vanguard of unionism in Glasgow were soon forced to wander up a hill at the side of the square.
Of the rest of the day's speakers, most stayed on safe ground, with loud boos every time David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith or Gordon Brown had their name mentioned. There were familiar references to nuclear weapons, illegal wars, food banks and child poverty, a repetitive buzzword bingo that, while listing off real problems in our society, rarely listed solutions other than breaking off from Westminster, something which may not be on the cards for the foreseeable future. But the event was as much about spectacle as it was the substance of what was said onstage, which helps explain the appearance of the "Bikers for Yes", who roared into "Freedom Square" in a cavalcade of a hundred or so motorbikes in the middle of the afternoon.
There aren't many political movements in the UK that have their own biker gang, but then the movement gathered around Hope Over Fear is hardly typical. It bears a fractious and awkward relationship with the mainstream Yes movement; on Saturday, the only Scottish newspaper to support a Yes vote last year, the Sunday Herald, was "banned" by organisers from covering it. There was no official SNP presence, although last month it was reported that one of the party's branches "descended into chaos" when the rally was discussed. Other prominent Yes backers, like Women for Independence and the Scottish Green Party, have also shunned Hope Over Fear, in part because of its association with Tommy Sheridan.
Largely abandoned by the mainstream Yes movement, Hope Over Fear has developed into a formidable subculture of its own accord, with a largely working class base who were deeply invested in last year's referendum and now want independence at all costs. It's a movement with its own uniform of "The 45" t-shirts and saltire V for Vendetta masks, its own soundtrack of acoustic songs about "Westminster paedos", its own memes and in-jokes, and its own folk heroes and legends. At one point, a marriage proposal was even carried out on stage.
As the rally trundled on for two hours past its scheduled 5PM finish, it became obvious that most of the crowd were hanging on for one reason. Sadly for Sheridan, it wasn't to hear him, but rather Gerry Cinnamon, a singer-songwriter whose Hope Over Fear song has emerged as the "Anthem of the independence movement". Cinnamon stormed T in the Park this summer, with hundreds cramming into the T Break tent to catch him. Little surprise, then, that he was the star attraction at the rally, with the crowd erupting as they belted each line – "Tell Westminster Tories that Scotland's no longer yer slave" – back at the stage, and a smoke flare was let off to welcome him.
Nationalism in Scotland feels stronger than ever, as much a badge of cultural identity as anything substantively political. But how events like Saturdays – with their inward, tribal focus – are meant to win anyone over to supporting independence seems almost to be an afterthought.
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