In January 2020, I joined thousands of other independence supporters marching through a sodden Glasgow city centre. It was one of many indy marches I’ve been on. Huge gatherings of hopeful people who have come together across Scotland since 2011. In Glasgow that Saturday there was anger and joy. Anger that the UK government remained determined to continue with its plans to remove Scotland from the EU against the democratically expressed wishes of the Scottish people. And joy that once again we showed ourselves to be a diverse, energetic, optimistic group. Thousands of people who could be mobilised rapidly from across the country to show their support for independence.
One of the abiding memories many of us will share from that day is indy supporters dancing in the heavy rain. It made me feel absolutely certain – once again – that our side was the right one to be on. Unionism is a dead end. It offers only nostalgia, a fantasy of importance. It verges on supremacism, it fails to offer a vision for Scotland beyond dependency and handouts. A country that is forever a failure. That cold wet January day our optimism for Scotland couldn’t be contained. We danced in the face of the sour winter weather and we danced in the face of a miserable angry UK which had decided to isolate us and itself from the rest of the continent.
Little did we know that only a few weeks later we’d all be facing the huge challenge, the fear and the dislocation of a global pandemic. An event, the impact of which won’t be fully understood for years. The marches came to an end as gatherings were banned and we were confined to our homes. Slowly but surely over the following two years it became harder and harder to imagine those dancing days. Since our freedoms have returned I’ve found myself disinterested in the marches I used to enjoy so much. The family members and friends that were my companions on those huge demonstrations have mostly failed to return to the streets too.
I’m not certain exactly why I don’t feel inspired by these events any longer. I haven’t especially discussed it with fellow activists. But it’s certainly something that’s happened. Some folk might argue it’s to do with the fracturing of the indy movement. I’m not convinced. There’s always been a range of people and opinions on the Yes side. The marches brought us together and we were largely able to ignore differences.
I wonder if it’s not so much that the movement has more pronounced differences than previously but rather that there is a widespread and creeping sense of powerlessness. We face huge challenges. The war in Ukraine has been an enormous shock. Decades of relative peace in Europe have come to an abrupt end. The order established after the fall of the Soviet Union is over. Every country in Europe is feeling the impact. The war upsets our existing notions of how the continent works and where we fit into it. It would have been inconceivable back in January 2020 that Sweden and Finland would be joining NATO or that the tiny Baltic states would be bracing themselves against open threats from Russia. Smaller states are reconfiguring their security arrangements in response to what looks like exposed positions. Contrary to what unionists suggest that’s not an argument against independence. In fact it’s the opposite. Finland, Sweden, Estonia and the other Baltic states are coming together to protect their sovereignty not give it up.
Nonetheless, the Ukraine situation poses as yet unanswered questions about how we chart our future as an independent state. Because it poses questions about what Europe is, where it ends and who’s part of it.
There used to be a popular belief – supported by some academic argument – that the independence movement did well when the economy was in good health. A buoyant economy, it was argued, increased confidence and optimism. The capacity to imagine a successful future is easier when things are going well. The present rolling economic crisis makes a wealthy successful future much harder to picture. The optimism we felt back in 2020 has mostly evaporated. Most of us are exhausted with the pandemic and the disruption it caused in our working, social and family lives. It’s still not easy to think clearly about how the future will look at a personal level far less imagining ourselves building a new independent country. That vision is still there but doesn’t independence feel like a more peripheral part of it than before?
Of course all these factors matter on the unionist side too. A successful, optimistic Britain is just not a convincing vision. Worse hit than nearly every other economically advanced nation on nearly every measure the UK looks like it’s staggering into the future like a drunk wounded in a street fight. The recent jubilee might have given the British nationalists a temporary feeling of safety and security but it looked all very shallow to me. As I’ve often remarked the adjectival form of pomp is pompous. The UK is drowning in multiple crises. A red white and blue rubber ring won’t rescue it.
When Nicola made her recent announcement about next year’s proposed referendum I was pretty much unmoved. I’ve been an SNP member since 1975 and the fight for independence has been core to my life since then. Suddenly I felt indifferent. I noticed on social media that the response was quite muted. The other side looked like it was going through a performance. So did we.
Can that excitement and enthusiasm of the period from 2010 to 2020 be revived? Does it need to be? I’m not certain. For years now I’ve said that the next independence referendum won’t look like the first. How can it – so much has changed? The world of 2014 is over forever.
Whatever comes next will have to be different. It’s certain that a campaign will emerge which makes sense in terms of the present economic, global and political circumstances. That’s the nature of politics. I don’t know yet how it will look. One thing though is certain; the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK is as broken as it has always been. It is that which will bring about the end of the UK state. And it will happen sooner or later. But we will need to inspire and mobilise people just like we did last time. If we can work out how to do that in the face of these enormous challenges we could be on the road to independence by this time next year.