Dazz and the Plastic Population
At some point over these closing days we Scots are going to get a present from the rest of the UK: thousands of signatures, all lovingly collated by Dan Snow and his Let’s Stay Together (LST) chums. They have moved beyond the original 200 “celebrities” of everyone from Sir Cliff Richard to David Starkey (he who described Scotland as “feeble”) to the hoi polloi. Whichever number they present us with, they will no doubt claim it as some kind of mandate that therUK don’t want us independent and that their voices should be heard.For the media it couldn’t more gift-wrapped than if it was accompanied by a bunch of single-stem English red roses. But here’s the thing: being one of the few Scots to have witnessed a LST gathering, I can tell you that the only aroma coming off these flowers of the union will be something plastic.
Now that the weekend polls have woken rUK from their slumber, LST have upped thier presence socially. There’s an important element missing from their story however: any kind of information to help people make an informed choice. They are harvesting people on a whim and a prayer, those not up with how nuanced this campaign has become.
Before I explain what LST looks and feels like, it’s worth remembering the prime movers in this faux lovebomb campaign:
· Ian Taylor – the Vitol CEO, he donated £30,000 to LST.
· Dan Snow – son-in-law of the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in the UK who owns a land mass in Scotland the size of West Lothian.
· Andrew McGuinness – a Labour supporting London-based founder of marketing communications companies Beattie McGuinness Bungay and Seven Dials PR. BMB worked on Tony Blair’s 1997, 2001 and 2005 General Election campaigns. Clients of Seven Dials include Debretts (the Peerage and Baronetage publishers), City AM, Aberdeen Asset Management and Fortnum & Mason. Ewan Venters, the Scottish-born CEO of Fortnum & Mason has been a prominent supporter of Better Together and LST. Andrew is CEO of Freuds now: clients include Department of Health, Diageo and London 2012.
· MT Rainey – Maria Therese is a Dumbarton-born advertising executive who is the founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and the chairman of digital agency Th_nk. She has funded the Labour Party, including personal donations to Douglas Alexander, and is currently on the advisory board of Labour’s Creative Industries and Digital Review. Last year she co-chaired Margaret Curran’s Employment for the Future taskforce.
All these people have a vested interest in the status quo of No, not that many who sign the letter will realise that.
There have been three elements to the campaign: the original “You’re My Best Friend” video featuring the likes of Ross Kemp and Trinny & Susannah that spawned a thousand memes; the “Let’s Stay Together” letter fronted by Snow; and the achingly weak “Heartstrings” campaign. MT Rainey employed her pals from the Adam & Eve/DBB advertising agency for that last one. They are the guys who do the expensive Christmas adverts for John Lewis and are uber-hot in London media circles. They are unlikely to be uber-cheap. Grassroots this is not.
There have been times when the mask has slipped. LST tweeted out last month: “Grievance, victimhood, anger and conspiracy does not bode well as the basis for the self rule of a confident nation.” Of course it’s not all bile, but there’s no substance either.
Like scarletpimpernels searching for reds under the bed inEldoredo, finding an LST event is not easy. They usually give less than 24 hours notice on where they will be appearing next. That could be because they are at the mercy of Snow’s schedule, or it could be because they’re feart of a bunch ofYessers rocking up and forcing them into providing more than platitudes.But, a week past Friday, they said they were going to be in Liverpool the following day. By brilliant coincidence so was I.
So, Saturday lunchtime, me and a palsashayed up Church Street, part of Liverpool’s main shopping area. Before we got to LST we had to negotiate our way past an inordinate amount of street entertainers (this is Liverpool afteralI, but I did like the blind guitarist doingMerseybeat tunes), a Royal British Legion Poppy campaign bus (who I felt had a genuine sense of purpose) and under a zip wire that rose 10 metres above our head and down the length of the thoroughfare. Little did we realise that people channelling their inner Boris Johnson was the best entertainment of the day.When we eventually found the LST crew we saw that Ian Taylor’s money has been put to modest use. A couple of pull-up banners, a wee sound system, some helium balloons and about a dozen clipboards for collecting signatures. This was just past midday and, thinking it could be a long afternoon, I settled down behind their stall with a Boots Meal Deal and a bucket of Costa coffee.As per usual Labour had whipped its local heavyweights to gather the signatures. In this city that sat funny with me: Liverpool is the kind of place you might expect their politicians to back the fairer society being offered by the Yes vote. One of their number (Andy Burnham) is leading the campaign against the privatisation of the NHS; you know, that one that Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy don’t like to talk about. Burnham was conspicuous by his absence, but fellow local MP Steve Rotheram was there, as was Paul Brant, the deputy leader of the Labour-run council.
There were another couple of notable names, the first being Jane Kennedy, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside. A former MP, she was a Labour whip and resigned in 2006 as a Minister of State at the Department of Health in protest at proposals for payment by results applied to children’s hospitals. She was also a Minister on Gordon Brown’s government, but resigned in 2008 in protest at his leadership. Her resignation hat-trick came in 2009 when she was caught up in the expenses scandal. She employed her partner in her office, regularly claimed the same amounts for items such as utilities and maintenance without receipts, as well as the maximum £400-a-month for food. Like Jim Murphy, in Westminster Jane was one of Labour’s ‘Friends of Israel’. Twice their chair, she also twice travelled to Israel at their largesse.
Also available for the cameras was former Everton football club player Peter Reid. The LST Twitter account bombarded all the main Everton supporter groups that morning asking for them to meet Peter. In keeping with the event precious few engaged.
In one of the busiest shopping junctions in Liverpool the campaigners battled to get signatures. Admittedly it’s not the easiest to stop people going about their business. The greater majority of people passed them by, seemingly unaware of their presence or motives.
Although one of their number kept on calling on people to sign the “petition” (an unfortunate turn of phrase), in the main LST’s methods were pretty inoffensive. They politely asked people to sign the letter; they explained they were writing to the people of Scotland not to break up the Union, and they pointed to the giant letter and the giant Dan Snow adjacent to it.
Snow himself dallied in and out of conversation, always willing to have his picture taken. At one point he posed with one of the many passing Hen Parties. Not bad for them to hazily recall the next day that they’d met that history bloke off the telly, “You know, Dan whatshisname.” I didn’t once hear from him or the signature chasers the mention of foodbanks, Trident, the NHS nor the free prescriptions and free university education that Scots enjoy. This was a temperance zone of informed decision making. “Please sign this, don’t ask why. Have we mentioned Dan Snow’s over there?”
The only thing approaching discourse was when they encountered those who patently didn’t support their cause, and there were a sizeable number of them. Most just waved them away but about half an hour in this was when the day’s most notable event took place.
Paul Brant got into an animated conversation with a man who was clearly having none of the LST campaign. After their discourse came to end, one of the organising apparatchiks sidled up to Brant, had a chat and took his clipboard off him. With a pen in his hand he started scribbling away on a signatory sheet. I wondered what he was doing. Was Brant’s pen out of ink and he was testing it for him?
I got up and wandered past as Brant was handed back the clipboard and tipped it in my direction. There was only one name and postcode on the page, right at the top of it. There were no other apparent marks like pen test scribbles on the page. Had that guy just put down someone’s signature to spite the man with an opinion who walked away? I should stress I don’t know if anything untoward took place, but Brant squinted his eyes as if to say, “What was that?” I didn’t think it the wisest move to ask him whether that because he was uncomfortable his sheet being interfered with or just that he was embarrassed that he couldn’t work a biro.
So I continued doing my best George Smiley impression. When LST’s limited supply of balloons stopped attracting the kiddies, they then switched on their music system to play such union classics as Bill Withers’ “Friend of Mine” and The Wannadies “You and Me Song”. But they turned that off after about six songs when it appeared that the signature chasers couldn’t speak over it.
By then Peter Reid had showed up and the obligatory photo calls with the giant letters started taking place. Then Dan, Peter, Steve and Jane all put on Beatle’s mop-top wigs. It was only when I later looked at social media that I realised what our not so-fab-four were up to. This was all an event to promote the Sir Paul McCartney signatory. Which is fine and a decent stunt.
I saw several journalists refer to the LST event in Liverpool as a ‘rally’. Now, call me Rosa Luxemburg, but I’m not sure you can define a mini-bus full of people as a rally. But if LST are good at one thing it’s making themselves seem more important than they are. They later tweeted a picture of some of the signatories who they had bravely engaged with. All the chat was of the amazing reception the people of Liverpool has given them. What? Largely ignoring them? It’s the same on their Twitter feed; they retweet anyone who has signed the letter. However, if you dig into the accounts of these people they are often affiliated to the Tories, Labour or Lib Dems. Perhaps they’re the guys who don’t want to be bussed up to Milngavie for £25.
The photo session took up a good 20 minutes and when people went back to the business of gathering signatures activity had slowed considerably. After the early enthusiasm of chasing anyone, at any given minute barely a few of them were actively engaged in getting signatures. I watched one guy go ten minutes without getting one, and most were milling about forlornly. And then, after less than 90 minutes, they were packing up. Not much stamina these Astroturf guys.
We took this as our cue to ask a few questions on behalf of fellow Scots. Armed with page 66 of the Wee Blue Book, my pal asked Steve Rotheram questions 5, 6 and 7: they are the ones about in the event of a No vote would Scotland still be in the EU, have a fully publicly-funded NHS and would the “Barnett Formula” remain in place and in the same proportions.
A wily old street-fighter, Steve hit us with this zinger: “All of these questions are hypothetical because nobody knows. They are predicated on who the next Government is.”
That wasn’t very satisfactory, but entirely in keeping with Better Together’s commitment in not providing answers and Let’s Stay Together’s superficial campaign. Just for the hell of it we asked one final question: did Steve feel uncomfortable appearing on the same platform as a man whose father-in-law has more money than the bottom 10 per cent of British society?
The reply? “I’ve got no problem with people who are rich, but philosophically do I think we should be more equal, yes.”
I thought about Steve’s answer as we wandered back past the more redoubtable British Legion and street entertainers. There was a bit more noise than when we had walked up 90 minutes previous. At the bottom of Church Street there is an HSBC bank and outside it there were a group of pro-Palestinian protestors. In terms of numbers there was about 40-50 making a racket, what one might term ‘a rally’.
The thought crossed my mind that once upon a time there would have been politicians from Liverpool standing alongside them. Not that it mattered, they still proudly held aloft their Socialist Worker placards. They were not made of plastic.