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By Jason Michael
It is estimated that over 100 thousand people marched through Edinburgh for independence on Saturday, making it the biggest show of popular support for independence on record. The weather was fantastic and the atmosphere electric. Watching a sea of saltires and Yes flags parading down the Royal Mile, down past the Scottish parliament, and out into the expanse of Holyrood Park in the sunshine was a vision to behold. This was heart-warming stuff. So, before I go on to drop a little shade on one particular aspect of the event, it is only right to acknowledge what the All Under One Banner (AUOB) organisers achieved. They pulled off something that has shown the British establishment and its lackey media that the independence movement in this country has become, as Martin Hannan put it, “an irresistible force ready to sweep away all the dams and barriers that have stood in our way for too long.”
We are all aware of the position taken by Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the public body tasked with caring for and promoting Scotland’s historical environments. Quite unnecessarily – in my own opinion – HES decided not to allow a political rally in Holyrood Park. On 26 September the body released a statement stating:
[We] have not granted permission for the set up of stalls, staging, branding and other static presence within Holyrood Park. As a non-departmental public body, HES must remain politically neutral at all times and we do not permit political events of any nature to take place within our Properties in Care.
People would not be stopped from marching and no one would be prohibited from going into the park. HES, in liaison with Police Scotland and City of Edinburgh Council, said it would facilitate the march, but felt – for the purposes of remaining politically neutral – it could not allow a political rally on the green. With or without permission, most of us who had decided to attend the march had decided we would be rallying on the park. On the Thursday before the march I published a blog post stating my own intention to disobey whatever authority attempted to stop us holding a pro-independence rally. At this point we were all on the same page.
On the Friday, the day before the march was to take place, while I was travelling from Dublin to Glasgow news broke that AUOB had won the right to rally in the park. After an emergency meeting with HES, City of Edinburgh Council, Police Scotland, and representatives of the Scottish parliament AUOB made the following announcement:
We are proud to announce that Police Scotland have made an executive decision in the interests of health & safety and public order to facilitate our stance that we are rallying at Holyrood Park and are implementing emergency powers to make this happen.
The following day people came in their thousands to Edinburgh to march through the city and rally in the park in the belief this had all been sanctioned by the police, the city council, and HES. Elderly and disabled people came, families with children attended, and independence supporters with their famous and infamous ‘indy dugs’ came in abundance. In the days before the march people were voicing their concerns on social media that there might be some hassle, with the possibility that we might have to face police truncheons and run the risk of arrest to get to the park. On the morning of the march all that had evaporated. Folk were excited and felt at ease. This was certainly the feeling in the air as we walked down the Royal Mile. There was no trouble. The police were wonderful and all smiles. You’d never know they had recently changed their Twitter profile picture to the unionist ‘Yawn’ logo of Scotland in Union.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthro’s Pished. (@ZamboniniCarlo) October 05, 2018
Shortly after the start of the rally, however, it was brought to my attention that everything was not as above board as we had been led to believe. One of the men I was walking with passed me his phone, on which there a statement published to the HES website open. It read:
Our position on use of the Park for any rally after the march remains the same. It has not been overruled by Police Scotland. To confirm, we have not given permission for the set-up of stalls, staging, branding and other static presence within Holyrood Park.
This was dated the day before and so must have been a response to the announcement made by the AUOB organisers. Someone was telling porky pies; either HES was trying to save face or AUOB was pulling a fast one to ensure a large turnout. Either way, this situation had me furious. No one seemed to know what the truth was and a number of those around me were upset with what was happening. Once the rally was over, when we had all had some nosh and were safely enjoying the craic in the pub, shortly after midnight, Mandeep (“Manny”) Singh, one of the AUOB organisers, posted what was frankly a disturbing message to his Facebook page:
Oh by the way police never backed us. Small white lie. The person who represented them tried his hardest to make us go to parliament… When we went this morning many things could have happened. You may ask why the white lie. Because if we said we will go and set up on land without permission many people would have started crying and backing HES… this could affect numbers what they have always wanted to do. They were never going to budge. So we made a decision we would not bend a knee… Sorry for the lie but it was for the greater good. Me, Gary, Neil did what we did. Someone had to lead… I come from a long line of fighters. My ancestors were at war since the 7th century against the Islamic invasions.
I have no idea what my ancestors were up to in the seventh century – probably picking fights with Angles, Saxons, and Danes and roasting the odd Christian missionary, but, and considering the light in which the British political establishment would like to put Scottish nationalism, there really was no need for this reference to Islamic invasions. Manny is a Sikh and is referencing the historical experience of northern India, but not everyone is going to get that.
Back to the lie. Manny himself calls it a lie and says that it was a premeditated mendacity, the result of a decision made by a number of the AUOB organisers – Manny, Gary, and Neil. My first issue with the lie is that it was a lie. The irony is that we are an independence movement; struggling for the freedom to make our own decisions. How can we make informed decisions when those leading us – “Someone had to lead” – are telling us lies, getting us to do what they think is for “the greater good” under false pretences? By telling this lie AUOB – and no doubt with the very best of intentions – took from us our agency, making decisions for us and ensuring our compliance with a fabrication. That leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. I want to make informed decisions and be in a position to give informed consent based on facts. This is one reason I am an independentista.
Lies are corrosive to political movements. Sure, they wanted to ensure we had a massive turnout – and we understand that – but that AUOB lied about what the police had said – which may even actually be a criminal offence – means our trust in what it says in future is damaged. It may come as news to some, but independence movements are sometimes the target of police violence. Of course, we want to keep things democratic and peaceful in Scotland, but in the event things ever go a little Barcelona we really need to know that those organising and leading marches and mass political rallies are giving us the absolute truth and all the pertinent facts – all of the time.
Manny said it himself: “…many things could have happened.” I am a seasoned activist. I have been at protests that have turned into riots. I have seen mounted police baton charges. I have sat down in front of public order police and their dog units. I have been water cannoned and pepper sprayed. I even know what tear gas smells like. Trust me, I know many things could have happened. That it never went pear-shaped is no excuse for taking this sort of risk with people’s safety. On the morning of the march, as Manny admits, not one of the organisers knew how it would play out and the vast majority of those on the march were completely in the dark – trusting the lie they were told.
Had the police decided – as was indeed their right – to block the route from the parliament to the park, had they started dismantling the stand and the stalls, it would have only taken the actions of one or two hot heads to spark a riot and a more forceful police response. Police Edinburgh has already shown its support for the union. We can be in little doubt, in spite of the good humour of the officers we all saw, that there are at least some in their number who would love nothing more than to put a few of us in our place. Even without police heavy-handedness, a panic spreading over a crowd of that size would have been catastrophic. Those are narrow streets. Can we imagine people trying to flee the police or in blind panic while others are trying to protect small children, their elderly or disabled friends and relatives, their small dogs? We need to engage our brains here.
As I have already said, I was willing – and I blogged and tweeted as much – to disobey the police and any other authority in order to get to the park. Civil disobedience is an important instrument in the toolkit of any political movement. Without bringing violence, I and many others were willing and prepared to put it up to the police and assert our right to demonstrate our will at the time and place of our choosing. But not everyone could have done this. No way would I bring toddlers, small children, or even teenagers to an event where there was even the remotest chance of a police standoff. Not everyone even agrees that standing off against the police is the right course of action. People came and people brought their children and animals because they trusted a statement that was an out and out deliberate lie designed to achieve the goal of a very small group of organisers.
On Saturday I'm going to Edinburgh. I'm going to walk to Holyrood Park for a picnic. And after I've scoffed my piec… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Jason Michael (@Jeggit) October 04, 2018
Okay, it is done now. There was no trouble and no one was hurt. Everyone I met on the Mile and in the park had a great time. Everyone was happy and excited. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I am glad it happened. I am thrilled we made it the biggest pro-independence event yet. But this might have been very different. As we get closer to independence, when the police may well be deployed against us as is now the case in Catalonia, there will be other marches and rallies where putting it up to the police is a crucial piece of the pie. People have to be fully informed. They have to have all the facts all of the time so they can make their own minds up.
I am writing this piece aware that some reading it might be very angry with me. We have seen how people were mobilised against employees of HES and how some have been treated on social media for speaking out against this lie. One source inside HES has told me that once AUOB encouraged people to complain, the “phone [was] going mental with folk complaining.” One employee was even called a “Tory f-ing pig” by an angry man who then shouted down the line he “hopes all of HES’s employees die!” Alex Patterson, the chief executive of HES, had to visit telephonists in person to apologise for “all the shit” they had had to take. Yes, this happened. That’s always what happens when you rile up a mob and set it loose. I am aware some might now want to point their rage at me. I am prepared for that.
We are better than this. We are not a mob. We are not thugs. We are hundreds of thousands of ordinary decent Scottish people struggling together for the independence of our country – for a better future. Better futures do not start with idiotic bampot behaviour and bully tactics, and they do not start with lies and deception. My hope here – and sincerely – is to be constructive. Manny and all the people behind AUOB are doing a spectacular job, but this was a mistake. What I am asking for is simple: No more stirring up the mob and no more wee white lies.
Merrion Row Clashes – Dublin November 3rd 2010