It was one of the coldest nights of the year so far, but that did not stop hundreds of people from gathering outside Holyrood this Wednesday evening to protest at the supreme court’s ruling that Scotland could not legally hold another independence referendum.
Scottish flags were worn like capes – little protection against a chilly Edinburgh evening – and Yes signs strung with lights were waved against the darkening sky. Anti-Tory placards made an appearance, some recycled from 2014, others with a fresh angle. “Our colonial status has been confirmed – and the law is an ass!” read one.
Groups of bagpipers huddled together, warming up their instruments and stopping for a cigarette break. The Proclaimers were blasted from a stereo on the stage, funded by the Scottish Independence Foundation.
A small but lively counterprotest across the road shouted over a tannoy, calling for the independence campaign leaders to be put in the dock for treason. “The union has worked for 400 years,” said Ronnie Kane, co-director of the pro-union campaign group A Force For Good. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The pro-independence supporters were equally buoyant. Jim Brack described the court ruling as a “win win”, saying: “It has revised the situation. We were perhaps getting a bit complacent.”
Julia Stryl, 52, agreed that the result would provide a boost to the independence movement. “[Westminster] hoped the supreme court would be neutral. Now, it’s Westminster that’s clearly blocking the democratic right to independence for the Scottish people.”
The crowd on the evening was diverse, with speakers from America, France, Catalonia and elsewhere. The fallout from Brexit was a strong consideration for many who had voted pro-union in 2014 but since changed their mind.
“I regret it,” said Elise Tallaron, who is French and has lived in the UK since 1996. “Even then, I could see strong arguments for independence.” She is now treasurer for the Yes For EU movement.
It was clear that anti-Tory sentiment, always strong in Scotland, had been gathering force amid Covid, Brexit and the cost of living crisis. One placard reads: “Scotland can’t afford to be part of the UK.”
The Scottish National party MP Tommy Sheppard, who took the train from London to attend, declared that Scotland did not need to be “enslaved” to a “decaying, post-Brexit isolationist” union any longer.
David Spacey, 56, believed that Westminster had played the wrong card on a new referendum. “After the ‘punishment budget’ things are getting grim. At the moment the chance of independence is 50/50. [The union] could win it. If they wait, and people get poorer, and struggle to pay their bills, support for independence will only increase.”
The crowd cheered loudly when Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, made a surprise appearance.
“Today it has been clarified that the UK is not a voluntary partnership of nations,” she said, adding that the result would create only “temporary relief” for unionists. “No establishment Westminster or otherwise will silence the voice of the Scottish people.”
Sturgeon faced strong calls from those present to make her proposal for an SNP convention next year a cross-party movement.
Colin Fox, co-spokesperson for the Scottish Socialist party, said: “Today could be a historic day if independence supporters realize we need a better strategy to beat the forces of British state that bar our way.”
Between speakers, pipers provided brief musical interludes. The unofficial national anthem, Flower of Scotland, was sung. One person was taken ill and removed by ambulance. The counter-protest did not let up from the other side of the road.
Lesley Riddoch, an independence campaigner and organizer of the rally, summed up the overall sentiment when she told the crowd: “We may not have yet convinced people that independence is the answer, but certainly Westminster and any belief in Westminster is gone and that is massive progress – and something for us to build on.”