Where was Brian Souter?
Peter Geoghegan · 'Yes Scotland'
‘Go on, Dougie,’ the man beside me shouted. His silver and blue lapel pin twinkled in the wan light of Screen 7 at Cineworld in Edinburgh. To my left, a woman beat her foot as Dougie MacLean shuffled with his guitar across the makeshift stage at the launch of Yes Scotland last Friday. In the front row, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister sang along to ‘Caledonia’; Alex Salmond grew lachrymose, or at least appeared to in the footage broadcast on the evening news.
Half an hour earlier, the first minister, in an uncharacteristically subdued speech, had told around 500 cheering supporters packed into the multiplex that he wanted one million Scots to sign a rather bland declaration of support for independence before autumn 2014: ‘I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland’. Salmond was the first to put his name to it, signing a ten-foot high replica of the declaration at the front of the stage before a scrum of photographers.
Young volunteers in light blue ‘Yes’ T-shirts shepherded press and supporters past the ticket booth and concession stand and into the cinema. From behind a blue lectern, assorted well-known Scottish phizogs made impassioned calls for independence. The political rhetoric was interspersed with singers, poets, playwrights and a short film featuring shots of Edinburgh Castle, Scottish rivers and children at play, all set to the sound of Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’ (previously used, like ‘Caledonia’, in an ad campaign for Tennent’s lager).
The biggest challenge facing the SNP and the Yes campaign – the two are practically synonymous, although the Green leader Patrick Harvie, who shared the stage with Salmond, was among the morning’s most impressive speakers – is that the party is more popular than its flagship policy: the SNP holds 69 of 129 seats in Holyrood, but a recent YouGov poll (commissioned by Alistair Darling, a fervent opponent of independence) found only 33 per cent of Scots in favour of secession.
Yes campaigners evidently hope a post-national appeal to Labour values and voters will reverse this trend. Half a dozen speakers invoked Thatcher. For Dennis Canavan, the former Labour MP for Falkirk West, who won a seat in the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as an independent after New Labour mandarins rejected his candidacy as far too old Labour, independence is ‘a means of achieving greater social justice here in Scotland’.
Among the new supporters unveiled by Yes Scotland, Tommy Brennan, a former shop steward at Ravenscraig steelworks in Motherwell, spoke most directly to the former industrial heartlands that are still largely the bailiwick of Scottish Labour: ‘As a life-long trade union member with no political affiliation and speaking in a personal capacity, I am happy and comfortable to say yes to an independent Scotland.’ Brian Cox was less circumspect. ‘I come to this campaign as a democratic socialist,’ he said, before berating the ‘betrayal’ of ‘the self-serving Ramsay MacDonald’, and lauding Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party he founded.
Business voices were muffled, if they were heard at all: I recognised only George Mathewson, the former CEO of RBS, among a plethora of artists, athletes, environmentalists and socialists in a lengthy endorsements video. There was no mention of the SNP’s long-stated desire to lower corporation tax in Scotland (although, in fairness, there was little substantive policy discussion of any kind); no name check for such multimillionaire backers as Brian Souter, the owner of Stagecoach.
‘That was great, really great,’ said Paul, a retired social worker from Perth, as we stood in the cinema aisle waiting to leave. Paul is that rare thing: a Scottish Tory. He campaigned for Thatcher in Finchley, supported Hague and Howard, but last year gave his vote to Salmond. I asked if he was worried by all the talk of socialism. ‘Oh no, not at all. We’ll just need a healthy, active centre-right party after independence. But first we need to get independence.’