David Torrance: Amateur hour at Yes campaign launch

Flanked by Patrick Harvie and Alan Cumming, Alex Salmond finds reasons to smile. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Flanked by Patrick Harvie and Alan Cumming, Alex Salmond finds reasons to smile. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE usual showmanship was oddly absent as Alex Salmond began his independence crusade, writes David Torrance

Alex Salmond increasingly reminds me of Archie Rice from John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer. As he strode on to the stage at Edinburgh’s Cineworld yesterday morning (20 minutes late, naturally), he offered the same old song and dance routine about independence, but somehow it didn’t quite work. The jokes were thinner, the applause sparser and the script uninspired. As Rice remarked to an unresponsive audience: “Don’t clap too loudly, it’s a very old building.”

Not that the cinema was old, but a lot of the lines were. The First Minister worked his way through some evergreen favourites, including the mythical “community of the realm of Scotland”, and even evoked the Scottish Covenant of 1950, supposedly signed by around two million Scots; a curious analogy given it fundamentally failed to secure Home Rule. This time round the goal is more modest: one million Scots to sign a “Yes Declaration” by late 2014.

But some of the Declaration’s lines simply highlighted glaring plot holes. “I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future”, it began, “are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland.” As far as I know the Governor of the Bank of England doesn’t live in Scotland, and nor does Sir Sean Connery (who sent a message from Spain), Alan Cumming (based in New York, but heading home soon) and Brian Cox (also New York).

Together they contributed to the great independence music hall revue, an hour of singing, speeches, poetry and a few rather feeble jokes. It all ticked along but at no point truly came alive.

The fact it was held in dark cinema didn’t help. PR traps abounded – The Dictator was showing, but my favourite was the legend on a poster for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: “The search for our beginning could lead to our end.” Even two former SNP MSPs found that one amusing.

In short, the launch played to all the things the SNP claim the independence debate is not about: sentiment, national identity and nostalgia. Dougie MacLean was in fine voice as he sang Caledonia”, but where precisely it took the argument wasn’t at all clear. It was also a policy-free zone, with any mention of the Queen, monetary policy and Nato ostentatiously edited out. If there was a hard-headed case for independence, it was conspicuous by its absence.

Liz Lochhead read entertainingly from her own play, Mary Queen of Scotland Got Her Head Chopped Off, including the line (about Scotland): “National pastime: nostalgia.” She got that right. Martin Compston evoked the 1992 general election, Tommy Brennan conjured up Ravenscraig (independence won’t bring that back) and several others predictably name-checked Mrs Thatcher. Brian Cox’s closing rant – sorry, I mean speech – meandered through a rose-tinted view of modern Scottish history stuffed full of hoary old clichés.

And being theatrical types, the Leftish tenor of the event was unmistakable. Any attempt to present a broad-based argument for independence appeared to have been jettisoned. No businessman or woman spoke at the event, instead contributing short, essentially vacuous video clips which generated the impression that banker Sir George Mathewson and SSP leader Colin Fox actually have something in common. At points it resembled an (Old) Labour Party rally. All that was missing was a chorus of The Red Flag and an excitable Neil Kinnock shouting “well alriiiiiiight!”

In short, the whole thing smacked of preaching to the converted, a narrow rather than a broad front. The video screened at the beginning was full of hackneyed tartan imagery (again, I thought we were supposed to have moved on from all that) and, worse, appeared divorced from the real world. No mention of the eurozone crisis, nothing about the economic and social challenges facing every nation in the world except, it seems, Scotland.

There also appeared to be casting problems. Given the number of third-party endorsements the SNP unveiled during last year’s Holyrood election there were no real surprises, just the same old faces. Sure, the former BBC Head of News Blair Jenkins was a minor coup (amusingly, Compston approvingly mentioned his Order of the British Empire), but otherwise it was a damp squib. Had people turned down an invitation to appear? At points it looked suspiciously like it.

Fantasy politics also loomed large, each speaker reeling off their wish list of the wonders independence would or could achieve. Only Elaine C Smith (pre-recorded from Wales) injected some realism by conceding that independence “would be no magic pill”. Green leader Patrick Harvie, meanwhile, spoke of the need for a “new political culture” in order to win a “yes” vote, the implication being that the SNP was still rather wedded to the old.

The one thing I have always admired about the SNP has been its showmanship, tight direction and general command of the political stage. Yesterday’s event had none of those attributes, and the media briefing afterwards was more than a little amateurish, those taking questions unsure of their own script and, curiously, going out of their way to emphasise that the whole thing had been put together in a bit of a rush by a small overworked team.

Why such a sloppy approach to what we’re constantly told is the biggest decision for Scots in more than 300 years? I couldn’t help feeling that the whole SNP (and make no mistake, this was an SNP event) act was beginning to fray around the edges. Think of the scramble to come up with a convincing line to justify the Murdoch e-mails and the poor stage management of the local government elections. The National Movement’s cast and crew are clearly not on top form.

And all this talk of it being “the largest and most exciting community-based campaign in Scotland’s history” is just so much hot air. On my way back into Edinburgh city centre I witnessed no ferment, no one champing at the bit for independence, just a lot of people getting on with their lives who probably already have a view one way or the other. Don’t take my word for it; the (unchanging) opinion polls support that impression.

Will vaudeville acts be enough to keep the independence show on the road? Increasingly I doubt it. As time goes by a lot of the SNP’s arguments and policies seem to me in danger of collapsing under the weight of their own illogicality, and if Yes Scotland thinks it can gloss over that by putting on a good show then they’re in danger of treating voters like fools. A triumph of style over substance can’t – or rather shouldn’t be – enough.