THE First Minister has laid down new battle lines in the fight with drinks giant Diageo by claiming the entire population is against its restructuring plans.
After 20,000 people marched through Kilmarnock yesterday, Alex Salmond ratcheted up the tension between the company and the Scottish public, saying: "5.1 million people want Diageo to change their minds."
In an impressive display, Diageo workers joined union chiefs, former employees and the people of Kilmarnock to voice their support for keeping the town's Johnnie Walker bottling plant and the Port Dundas grain distillery in Glasgow.
Earlier this month, Diageo announced plans to cut 900 jobs from the two sites, 700 of them in Kilmarnock, where the whisky brand has had a presence since 1820. Opponents say unemployment in Kilmarnock could rise by 70 per cent as a result of the proposed cuts.
The march and boisterous rally sent a powerful message to the multinational drinks firm to change its mind. A petition against the plans has been signed by 10,000 people.
A Diageo spokesman said the company was aware of the strength of feeling surrounding the restructuring proposals and could "understand the reaction of our employees".
Mr Salmond said: "Today's march and rally demonstrated that the people of Scotland stand behind Kilmarnock and the campaign to keep Diageo in the town.
"This rally marks another step forward in the joint campaign to persuade Diageo of the substantial economic advantages in retaining their long-established and hugely beneficial links with the communities of Scotland."
Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie said the event had sent "a very powerful message to Diageo that there is anger and bewilderment at this decision".
She added that there was throughout Scotland a "passionate determination to require Diageo to reconsider".
Footballers from Kilmarnock FC joined the march, dubbed "Keep Striding Forward", which ended with a rally in the town's Kay Park. Mr Salmond said it was the first time he could remember an entire football club squad demonstrating in such a local campaign.
The march started from Howard Park in Kilmarnock at 1pm and finished in Kay Park with a rally and speeches. Strathclyde Police confirmed about 20,000 people attended.
Kilmarnock and Loudoun MP and former Scottish secretary Des Browne hailed the turnout. He said: "We have a message for Diageo today – you have got this wrong. You have underestimated the relationship between this community and wider Scotland and your industry. You have to think again."
He said he did not underestimate how difficult it would be to get Diageo to reverse its plans, but added: "There is a determination among all of us that we will come up with an alternative."
Diageo has insisted it will "offset" the cuts with 400 new jobs at its Fife packaging plant and the creation of a coopering centre in Clackmannanshire. It has also said there would be no compulsory redundancies for one year.
But Len McCluskey, assistant general secretary of the Unite trade union, insisted it was possible to force Diageo to rethink its plans.
He said: "People power and organised labour can change it, and we intend to change it.
"Let's be absolutely crystal clear right from the outset – this decision is borne out of greed, nothing else. Greed is their creed and we need to expose that.
"This is a company that made 2.2 billion profit last year and has already declared half-yearly profits of 1.6bn.
"This is company that does not need to take the drastic decisions that they have that will damage and destroy families and blight communities."
But Zander Wedderburn, a business expert and professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, said simply claiming the nation was against the plans would not be enough. "Unless something hits their commercial interest, (Diageo] will not turn. It would take something like a boycott of Diageo products to make them think again," he said.
A spokesman for the First Minister said Diageo had assured them it would consider an alternative business plan being drawn up by Scottish Enterprise to be presented next month.
A Diageo spokesman said: "We are aware of the strength of feeling surrounding the restructuring proposals and can understand the reaction of our employees. The march was a further opportunity to air those views.
"We continue to be in a formal consultation with employee representatives, and are working with the consultants appointed by Scottish Enterprise."
LABOUR VOWS: WE'LL TAKE THE FIGHT TO PARLIAMENT
PLANS to axe 900 whisky jobs will be discussed in the Scottish Parliament, Labour has revealed.
Michael McMahon, the party's business manager, has written to the Scottish Government calling on First Minister Alex Salmond to make a statement on Diageo's proposals when MSPs return to Holyrood in September.
Labour vowed if ministers did not make a statement on the matter, they would raise it in a members' debate.
The party has called on Mr Salmond to make a statement in Holyrood on 2 September. If that does not happen, Patricia Ferguson, the MSP for Glasgow Maryhill, will raise the issue in a members' debate the following day.
Ms Ferguson claimed Diageo's plans were a "potentially devastating decision which will ruin the lives of almost 1,000 families in Glasgow and Kilmarnock".
She stated: "It is right the issue is debated so we can be satisfied the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise are doing all they can to save the jobs."