A group of people standing in the street

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Is that no yon Clark Kent? Superman, ye ken! He’ll sort thae fascists oot!

Regular critic of the cause, Mark Smith turned up to walk with the 80 000 on Saturday in Glasgow and seems not to have been recognised by even one of them. Either that or they decided not to encourage him by giving him any attention or worse, abuse, that he might then have been able to write about. Judging by the photo most seemed to give him a bit of space. Was he asking strange questions? He certainly has a strange perspective on what a march of this kind might be like:

‘Which takes us to Argyle Street and the most unpleasant and disturbing part of the march, for me anyway. Cordoned off to one side are around 50 or so counter-demonstrators flying Union flags. One of them has a loudhailer and is telling us they represent the majority, but it’s the tension between the two groups that upsets me. A woman to my left starts screaming “Scotland!” over and over again in my ear and all I can see are flags. Their flags. And their flags. That side. And the other side. It’s a grimly unsubtle display and for the first time today, I wish I wasn’t here.’

I’ve seen the unsubtle exchanges and I’m astonished that Smith seemed to view them as equivalent. The frothing venom and fascist language of the Unionists and the boisterous and rude but not-hateful response from the marchers could not be more different. Was Smith doubly disappointed that he was not recognised by those on the extreme edge of his own tribe. He should thank his lucky stars they didn’t. They’d have given him something to be really upset about.

A group of people around each other

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Smith’s main conclusion, however, is that these marches will not change anything. We’ve had this line before, but none seem to bother to see if there is any evidence for their view. There is evidence against it:

‘It turns out that social science has a lot to say about which protests are likely to be effective. My research shows that social movements can indeed create long-lasting political change.’ (Mazumder, Harvard, 2017)


Mazumder, a PhD student at Harvard, found that peaceful, articulate and organised protests, as in the AUOB marches, can ‘create long-lasting political change.’

Just one PhD student is probably not enough. You might remember that was the basis for the Blair/Campbell ‘dodgy dossier’ justifying the Iraq War. Luckily, I knew that where there is a PhD student onto something, there will also be an academic onto the same thing.

Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way. Her research was reported on by David Robson of the BBC on 14th May last year, shared helpfully by Wings. He wrote at length, but the key points are:

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

Roughly 3.7% of the Scottish population (100 000 out of 5.4 million) marched in Edinburgh last year. Weather forecasts and the BBC lying about its cancellation almost certainly reduced the size in Glasgow on Saturday.

Robson gives these recent examples:

  • In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.
  • In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.
  • Earlier last year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.  
  • In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.
  • Chenoweth’s influence can be seen in the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, whose founders say they have been directly inspired by her findings

The full report is here on BBC UK: