In Glasgow

Peter Geoghegan

On Friday evening, hundreds of loyalists congregated in George Square. Some bought union flags from hawkers; most brought their own. Women in red, white and blue wraparound skirts sang 'you can stuff your independence up your arse.' Expensive cars disgorged burly men from Ayrshire and Fife onto the square. A Rangers banner was attached to the metal railings in front of the city's cenotaph. Sections of the crowd chanted 'Rule Britannia' and 'No Surrender'. Some gave Hitler salutes. In the gloaming, pro-independence supporters and non-aligned passers-by were attacked. So far eleven people have been arrested.

On Saturday afternoon George Square was quiet. Police in yellow bibs stood in pairs on each corner. A man in an orange top with a Union flag pin and a copy of the Daily Record under his arm was arguing with a small group of independence supporters about the motivations for the previous night's violence: 'That was about religion, not politics. It was about football.'

'But this isn't about football,' said a woman with a bright blue Yes badge. 'This isn't Glasgow. We're not staying in the 70s.'

A few feet away, a rainbow flag with 'peace' written across it and a Saltire hung from the cenotaph railing. There was also a poem: 'The world's eyes are upon us all. Let us lead the way in equality, a city without prejudice and without sectarianism.' It was signed 'Glasgow woman'. Underneath was a small collection of tins, donations for a local food bank.

In the hours leading up to Friday's post-referendum unrest, Britain First told demonstrators online to meet in George Square at 6 p.m. Britain First was founded in 2011 by a former BNP staffer, Jim Dowson, who is from Cumbernauld but now based outside Belfast. Among the crowd were members of the Rangers supporters' outfit 'The Vanguard Bears'. Last year they met with the Progressive Unionist Party – the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force – to discuss their joint opposition to Scottish independence. The Vanguard Bears regularly publish personal information, often gleaned from social media, about Celtic fans and Irish republican sympathisers in Scotland.

The past few years have been tough for Scottish loyalism. Rangers went into financial meltdown. The club is still making its way back up the Scottish football pyramid. Orangeism, once a force in Scottish politics, is now largely reserved for working-class men in the abandoned pit towns and mining villages that ring Glasgow and Edinburgh. The Orange Order - the most avowedly pro-Union organisation in Scotland - was effectively barred from joining Better Together, the cross-party No campaign.

But loyalism played a role in the referendum. The weekend before the vote, more than 10,000 Orange Order members gathered in Edinburgh for their largest march in Scotland in living memory. The parade was peaceful but the mood on the edges was belligerent. 'We're taking back our city,' a young man told me on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh that morning. After the parade, a group of men sang sectarian songs in Waverley Station.

The Edinburgh march – regularly reported as a 'pro-Union' rally - emboldened Scotland's loyalists to 'take back' Glasgow on Friday. Unmoored from the white-gloved decorum of the Orange Order - many of whom are committed Christians and temperance advocates - the post-referendum rally turned into a riot.

The independence debate was rightly celebrated for energising disenfranchised working-class communities across Scotland. But, less conspicuously, the referendum galvanised another alienated cohort in Scottish society. Now political leaders were saying 'UKOK', inviting Scots to fly the Union flag and have pride in Britain's imperial
past. On Thursday, as Scotland went to the polls, an image of Britannia circulated online, with Alex Salmond's severed head skewered on her trident. Scotland's much-heralded democratic renewal cuts both ways: for many loyalists, the referendum result is vindication of a deeply sectarian worldview.

So far the Scottish nationalist response to Thursday's defeat has played into the hands of the self-styled 'defenders of the Union'. Salmond has said Scots were 'tricked' into voting No. The former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars tweeted that 'majority votes and seats at Holyrood 2016' would be sufficient mandate to declare independence. Many Yes supporters have taken to referring to themselves as 'the 45' (the percentage of voters that backed independence). Scotland is not a nation divided, but that doesn't mean it is united.


  • 22 September 2014 at 9:16pm
    Rob Nickson says:
    Sad to see factual errors here. Sept 19 in Glasgow the evening rally did not "turn into a riot". It was certainly ugly and unpleasant but the police were waiting by George Square and their rapid intervention quelled the roar between the two sides before it could start.
    This was confirmed by Channel 4 and the Scotsman, both of whom had reporters on the ground. Channel 4 even called it an exchange of "handbags"
    Shouldn't we expect LRB to be more responsible and accurate in its reportage

    • 23 September 2014 at 11:11am
      James Alexander says: @ Rob Nickson
      Sad to see crass misunderstanding here. Its not the LRB, its not reportage, least of all is it LRB reportage. Its a blogpost. Expect accordingly.