The Yes Campaign launch in Edinburgh was a strangely nervy affair. Queuing for Cinema 7 in the unlovely Cineworld complex started an hour before “curtains up” – but still the event began 15 minutes late. Outside in the foyer SNP Cabinet Ministers drank coffee and wolfed down maple and pecan Danish pastry plaits (rather than the neatly assembled fruit platters) as activists looked on. Some came over to button-hole, greet or have a Yes picture taken with the grazing “Big Beasts” of the nationalist jungle. I spotted few Greens and fewer Scottish Socialists. But he mood was upbeat, relaxed and quietly confident. “Are you here as yourself or the press” was the most frequent question for me – clearly some low and high profile “outtings” and conversions were expected.
Inside the massive auditorium was absolutely packed – a sight that seemed to unnerve compere and Sweet Sixteen star Martin Compston who stumbled over his script. With everyone waiting for the first big “reveal” it became clear Sir Sean had not landed by helicopter and had not even recorded a video message (suggesting perhaps he had been expected in person until the very last minutes.)
A garbled message from the Bond star was read out before Alex Salmond took to the stage. Even he was curiously breathless and hardly hit top gear. Was he worried about appearing too triumphalist – too cocky too soon? The SNP leader’s words were strongly delivered but utterly familiar to anyone whose job takes them to First Ministers Questions every week. The Greens Patrick Harvie delivered a perfectly serviceable short speech – but like a minority interest jazz artist who performs best in smoky, club venues, Harvie also seemed overly formal and anxious to be correct. Alex Salmond’s punchline was the prediction that 1 million signatures on the Declaration of Independence by 2014 would guarantee referendum victory – his prompt march off to sign in a media scrum at the side of the stage left the audience craning to see what he was doing — momentum flagged.
The whole event revealed graphically that there are “worlds” within the relatively small world of Scotland.
So when ex BBC and STV news boss Blair Jenkins took to the evangelists pulpit to announce his conversion to the cause of independence, there was a sharp collective intake of breath from the press pack – followed by “who’s he?” from a young SNP supporter accidentally seated in our midst. When a young female singer took to the stage after a mumbled introduction – the recognition problem became ours. Of course no-one could mistake stalwarts like Dougie MacLean – though many political hacks downed pens immediately, clearly unsure how cultural offerings would fit into their account of proceedings. A roar went up when Elaine C Smith was introduced – but quickly abated when it became clear she was appearing on video not in person. It seems the redoutable Chair of the Independence Convention was stuck in Cardiff at work. Knowing Elaine, wild horses wouldn’t have kept her from this event so the trip north must have been completely impossible. But her physical absence straight after the “missing Sir Sean” looked bad.
Hollywood star Alan Cumming lent star value to the proceedings, Liz Lochead read a pithy extract from her hit play Mary Queen of Scots got her heid chopped off and Ravenscraig shop steward Tommy Brennan gave one of the best short speeches, linking the glory days of heavy industry with the green revolution that will yet see demand for Scottish engineering soar.
The piece de resistance was actor and Dundonian Brian Cox, greeted with a roar that faded mysteriously when he introduced himself as a democratic socialist. Recounting his own personal journey — leaving Scotland at an early age, feeling lost in London and then content in his identity as an expat Celt – Cox confessed that he only now felt uneasy about being Scottish when he was back home. He speculated that prominent Scottish explorers might have felt the same – certain of their roots only when absent from their beholden and forelock-tugging homeland. It was an interesting idea – boomed out with the authority of an award-winning Shakespearean actor. A lengthy trawl through the politics of the last century contrasted too sharply with the short concise speeches that preceded him. But the job was done. Some cool, some unlikely and some reassuringly familiar faces had taken to the podium to kick off the Yes Campaign. If it had been more slick – there would have been criticism. If Sir Sean had actually appeared his words would have been torn apart, his celebrity would have eclipsed every other contributor and his absentee status would have caused controversy. But I had expected something more than what was offered today. Less caution and more engagement. More personal stories of “moments”, hopes and conversions. Less reading from scripts, more imagination and far more involvement by prominent women.
Songs, sermons, socialising a few nervous jokes and caution permeating every word — it was like being at Church and was most decidedly not like being at that fateful Neil Kinnock “swally” where naked triumphalism apparently lost Labour the 1992 election. Perhaps that cautionary example has hung over proceedings too long.
It just wasn’t clear who today’s event was aimed at – the party faithful, the cameras, activists, the watching public, the political hacks – or all the above. At times the Yes launch felt like a variety performance, at times it felt more like a formal political rally without the rain, hecklers, megaphones or any efforts at American-style razzmatazz. In retrospect, Martin Compston’s hesitation was perhaps the most eloquent statement of the Yes campaign’s dilemma. Talking publicly about independence takes everyone except career politicians right outside their personal comfort zones. Some of today’s speakers spend their lives on stage, in front of cameras or addressing larger audiences than the one assembled in the Cineworld. But few actors, trade unionists, writers, media professionals or shop stewards have been in the limelight to extol the virtues of Scottish Independence before. For decades, that’s been a dodgy belief to publicly espouse in professional circles. So independence as a cause, aspiration or political goal has been left to the high priests of the SNP to articulate in their guarded, careful, unemotional and almost impersonal way. The awkwardness demonstrated today by consummate performers in other fields was to be expected given the SNP leadership’s monopoly on fronting, orchestrating and perhaps hogging the independence campaign to date. If they are wise, yes organisers will give more exposure – and speech-making experience – to these random, diverse, and heartfelt speakers. And they’ll hire a helicopter for Elaine C Smith, arrange the next event around her schedule or learn the very hard way that no amount of talk about “engaging the women’s vote” ever compensates for an all-live-male-speech-making line-up.