This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish nationalists, click here.
Robert Somynne is a London-born Scot of African-Caribbean heritage. When the Scottish referendum was announced, he was inspired by the civic nationalism of the pro-independence campaign. But when he shared his support online, he found it came at a cost.
“The comments ranged from being called ‘filthy Aids wog’ to ‘fuck off what you doing in Scotland anyway?’” he remembers. “These were usually comments from people who prior to the statements would talk about union and British unity.”
Another time, he was canvassing in the bustling Edinburgh neighbourhood of Leith, when three members of the Orange Order, a Protestant organisation viewed by many as sectarian, surrounded the stall.
“That was the first instance of physical confrontation,” he says. “They spat on the floor close to us, but walked away grumbling.”
With most newspapers focused on the online “cybernats” and pro-independence thugs, Somynne felt ignored. “As a BME pro-Indy person you had to sit and listen to the narrative about Indy people being abusive wondering if you were invisible,” he says.
Read more: The extreme Scottish nationalists
With a second independence referendum looking increasingly likely, Somynne fears that the pro-union parties warning about “division” are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“As for physical confrontation,” he says. “I’m honestly worried about certain sections of the No-supporting extremes, who see the independence movement as some kind of ‘Jacobite plot’ to destroy their British identity.”
In 2014, pro-union parties fought under a banner of economic realism, with the additional message that it was OK to be “Scottish and British”. After the experience of the EU referendum, though, there are murmurings that a second pro-union campaign would have to be fought on more emotional turf.
So what is behind what Somynne calls “the dark underbelly” of the pro-union campaign? And how likely is it to rear its head again?
One night in George Square
— Rachel (@racybearhold) September 20, 2014
For many independence supporters, suspicions that the pro-union campaign had resonated with the far right were confirmed on the evening after the referendum. A group of crestfallen, mainly young independence supporters turned up at Glasgow’s George Square, where they were confronted by a group of union supporters waving Union Jacks, singing Rule Britannia and giving Nazi salutes.
Glasgow SNP councillor Austin Sheridan, who is gay, was at the City Chambers that day, an imperial building on George Square. He left the building to see what was going on. “All of a sudden a guy came up and shouted at me,” he remembers. A video he made on his phone shows middle-aged men calling him “fucking poofter” and “nationalist scum”.
Sheridan believes the homophobic attack was “clearly organised”. He says: “The group of people arrived at the square all at the same time.”
In 2014, mainstream political parties succeeded in the most part in distancing themselves from the far-right unionists.
Scots were treated to the rare sight of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservative leaders agreeing on the need to stay in the UK.
This cross-party unity did not, however, extend to some of the other groups opposing independence – the British National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Scottish Defence League (which shares anti-SNP posts alongside warnings of a Muslim “invasion”).
While the fringes continue to share both far-right and an anti-independence messages, Facebook groups purely focused on a passionate defence of unionism have also flourished. Here, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is mocked as the TV comedy character “Wee Jimmie Krankie”, or the “ginger poison dwarf”.
One of the grassroots groups most consistently pushing the pro-union message is A Force For Good (its Facebook page has more than 4,000 followers). During the 2014 referendum it was not affiliated with the Better Together campaign and describes itself as providing “a historical and cultural background to the Union and the British identity”.
Its posts mainly thank Theresa May for objecting to a second Scottish independence referendum. However, the founder of the site, Alastair McConnachie, was forced out of Ukip after questioning aspects of the Holocaust (when I asked McConnachie if he still held these views, he referred me to a 2007 blog post in which he acknowledges the Holocaust but adds: “I’ve questioned and doubt, from a historically-interested point of view, some aspects, specifically with regard to the existence of execution gas chambers.”)
Unionism… and Unionism
There was a second undercurrent to that appearance in George Square. “The violence in George Square was sectarian,” says Dave Scott of anti-sectarian organisation Nil By Mouth, who wrote about the incident at the time. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-independence campaign here).
While there is no direct link between the pro-union campaign and Protestantism (Jim Murphy, a prominent Better Together supporter, is a practising Roman Catholic), some of the most passionate supporters of the UK are from Protestant groups.
The Orange Order is a controversial Protestant brotherhood that dates back more than 200 years. It is based in Northern Ireland, but has other branches around the world, the largest of which is in Scotland. Orangemen traditionally march on 12 July to celebrate the triumph of the Protestant monarchy over the Catholic King James II. Critics accuse the Orangemen of stirring up sectarian hatred and bringing unrest to the streets (in 2016, 13 people were arrested for minor offences during an Orange march in Glasgow).
In 2014, the Orange Order campaigned on behalf of remaining in the UK. Roughly 15,000 supporters from both Scotland and Northern Ireland turned up in Edinburgh on the weekend before the referendum for a march through the Scottish capital.
The organisation continues to comment on Scottish politics. The front page of the March 2017 edition of the house journal, The Orange Torch, was dedicated to the prospect of a second referendum. When I speak to Robert McLean, the executive officer of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, he confirms that if there is another referendum, his organisation will get involved again.
I put to him the complaints of independence campaigners that the Orangemen were a divisive presence. He responds: “If anything, the referendum caused division. If anyone’s causing division, it’s Nicola Sturgeon.” The Orange Order have been in Scotland for 300 years, he adds.
What next for the pro-union campaign?
Orange Order marches – and their sister activity, flute bands – have traditionally been abhorred by what Kevin McKenna, a Scottish columnist, calls the “liberal, godless, political classes” in Holyrood. The Better Together campaign was visibly embarrassed by its orange friends. But that was before Brexit.
While pro-union political parties in Scotland are still working out their plans, organisers must grapple with the fact that “Project Fear” failed to win the EU referendum. Better Together’s victorious campaign in 2014 was similarly pragmatic, with messages of economic stability and – crucially – the promise of staying in the EU.
In the patriotic fervour of Facebook groups like “Do Not Break Our Unity”, there is a different kind of unionism. It waves the Union Jack with pride, wears the poppy, celebrates the monarchy, approves of Theresa May and voted Brexit. As McKenna wrote in the summer of 2014:
The people who will decide the referendum will not be those in the chattering, political classes but the tens of thousands in the housing schemes across the country… both sides had better start properly to understand their language and their curious ways.
The question for mainstream politicians in Scotland – as in England – is what to do about this well of passionate, patriotic unionism. Can they channel it into an emotional case for unity? And would doing so come at a price?
Somynne, the independence campaigner and freelance journalist who has written about the referendum campaign, wants to see “calm and constructive” debate on both sides. But he worries it won’t turn out that way. “You’re asking fundamental questions about the way we define ourselves and challenging political realities,” he says. “It’s never going to be clean when that happens.”
Read more: The extreme Scottish nationalists