Edinburgh, Scotland – In 1992, on the same evening the Conservatives won a fourth successive UK general election, a small group of campaigners started a vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.
Their constant watch lasted five and half years, until Scots had a chance to vote “yes” to devolution in 1997.
Thousands returned to Calton Hill last Saturday. This time, however, they came not to demand more powers for Scotland, but to call for full independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.
What unites these people is that all their lives they've watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it's social justice or the environment or proper democracy.
“I’m here because I want Scotland to have the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as any other country in Europe or the world,” one demonstrator, Alan Farquhar, told Al Jazeera, as a colourful crowd of independence supporters, estimated by organisers at 20,000, made its way through Edinburgh’s historic Old Town towards Calton Hill.
Farquhar has been a member of the Scottish National Party for “22, 23 years”. “When I joined the SNP, we were at 9, 10, 11 percent in the polls. There has been a great progression since then: winning a minority election [in the Scottish Parliament in 2007], then a majority election [in 2011]. As far as I see it, independence is a natural progression,” Farquhar said.
Whether or not Scotland does decide to go it alone depends on the outcome of next September’s independence referendum. “A yes vote is for self-government, not remote government – good government with independence, not bad government from Westminster,” Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party and very much the architect of next year’s historic vote – told supporters on Calton Hill.
“A yes vote next September will not be a victory for the SNP, or the ‘Yes’ campaign, or even the huge coalition of interests and enthusiasm gathered here today,” he said during the three-hour rally.
“It will be the people’s victory. ‘Yes’ will be an act of self-confidence and self-assertion, which will mean that decisions about what happens in Scotland are always taken by the people who live and work here.”
Saturday’s rally, which was not organised by the official “Yes” campaign, was a decidedly ecumenical affair.
Alongside SNP banners and standards were men in kilts and William Wallace T-shirts, and there were placards for everyone, from “Farmers for Yes” to “Aussies for Independence”. Supporters of both the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, both backers of independence, were out in force, too.
“What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy,” said James Mackenzie, a member of the Scottish Green Party, who recently started a small business in Edinburgh.
|Independence referendum will be held in September 2014 [Peter Geoghegan/Al Jazeera]
“Independent Scotland would be run closer to the people, even simply on a geographical basis. The idea that Westminster is ever going to deliver social justice, sustainability, proper democracy, I just don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed in an independent Scotland, but at least we’d have a chance.”
As the marchers gathered at midday in Edinburgh, a busker played a cover version of Dougie McLean’s Scottish folk ballad “Caledonia”. A little further up the cobbled High Street, a woman with a microphone led a group behind a “Radical Independence Campaign” banner in a call-and-response: “What do we want?” “Independence.” “When do we want it?” “Now”.
“People don’t want more of the same, they want radical change,” Cath Boyd from the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign told Al Jazeera. “We need an economic change and a social change. Internationally, what Britain has come to represent is abhorrent. There is a place for a progressive Scotland with no nuclear weapons, which doesn’t participate in illegal wars,” she said.
Opinion polls suggest many Scots remain to be convinced about the virtues of independence. One poll at the beginning of September gave the “No” side a 30-percent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a “Yes” vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.
Large-scale rallies could help galvanise independence supporters ahead of a crucial 12 months of campaigning, said Peter Lynch, a lecturer in Stirling University and author of SNP: A History of the Scottish National Party.
“Showing to each other how many ‘yes’ supporters there are is good for morale,” he said.
“If you are a ‘yes’ supporter seeing endless polls saying ‘you’re only 30 percent’, oh, ‘you’re only 35 percent’, ‘now you’re down to 25 percent’, you feel like a beleaguered minority that is never going to win. These are the kind of events that make [‘yes’ supporters] see that there are actually a lot of ‘yes’ supporters, and if they can mobilise and grow then they are in with a chance of winning in September next year.”
Not everyone agrees. Tom Gallagher, emeritus professor at Bradford University, said nationalists are not doing enough to reach out to the undecided voters who are likely to decide next year’s referendum.
For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn't a wrong to be corrected - it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed - it is to be nurtured.
“The big challenge for ‘Yes’ campaigners is they need to stop dialoguing with themselves. They need to engage with the fears and anxieties that a lot of people have, instead of just brushing them away and saying ‘it’ll be alright on the night,'” the author of Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis said.
Among the Scottish saltires on Saturday were flags from Catalonia, Corsica, Flanders, Sicily, Wales and other nationalist movements across Europe.
Franco Rocchetta, twice a member of the Italian Parliament, was among a group of about 50 supporters of Venetian independence that made the journey from northern Italy to the Scottish capital.
“For us coming here is like swimming in the fountain of youth,” he said. “We are also fighting to get a referendum for independence.”
While Scotland’s independence campaign has garnered foreign admirers, so far it has struggled to attract supporters of the Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics and still the second-largest constituency in the devolved parliament.
Scottish Labour, strongly opposed to independence, is part of Better Together, a cross-party unionist campaign calling for a “No” vote in 2014.
At the weekend, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told attendees at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton that next year’s referendum was a chance to defeat the “virus” of nationalism.
“For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured,” Lamont told the group.
“And that cynicism, that calculation which leaves families suffering now is a price worth paying if it translates into votes next September. It’s a cynicism which corrodes our politics. It should create in us a revulsion.”
Unsurprisingly, Lamont’s assessment of Scottish nationalism did not resonate with the marchers in Edinburgh. “I feel it’s all inclusive,” said Tarlika Elisabeth Schmitz, who moved to Scotland from Germany 17 years ago.
Schmitz travelled from Lochaber in the Highlands to the capital for the rally. “It’s great to be here,” she said as she walked towards Calton Hill, accompanied by her Scottish terrier, Nechtain, in a blue “Yes” shawl.
“I think we will do it. I am pretty confident we will win.”