In September, Scotland may well deliver the biggest FCK LDN we’ve seen in centuries: after 300-odd years of union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland may choose to become an independent country. If it does, it won’t be because it was The Sun Wot Won It. It’ll be because of grotty basements like the one I’m in tonight.
The venue is Glasgow’s Stereo Cafe, it’s a Monday night in May, and the hosts are National Collective. NC is a thousands-strong collective of artists, creatives and supporters who have very little in common bar their support for Scottish independence. Tonight, some of their number are putting on a show with a bit of poetry, a bit of singing and a lot of speechifying.
National Collective is grass-roots in the proper sense, a ground-up movement that’s grown by word of mouth, not a fake movement funded from faraway capital cities. Despite what the media might have you believe it isn’t party political: while some Yes campaigners are SNP voters many more are Green, Labour, Scottish Socialist or independent. There might even be the odd Tory in there, although if there is they’re staying rather quiet about it.
This is National Collective’s first Glasgow session, but the group has been active throughout Scotland since 2011 – and it’s been very active on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. Bigger events are planned, including an Edinburgh Fringe festival show featuring Billy Bragg.
National Collective exists because the independence debate was, and to an extent still is, very one-sided. The No, pro-union campaign is mainly targeting older voters, and it’s conducting its campaign through mainstream media and scaremongering posters. Denied a similar platform – to date only one newspaper, the Sunday Herald, has thrown its support behind the pro-independence side, with the rest of the media giving a largely uncritical platform to the unionists’ doom and gloom even when their claims are provably false – the Yes campaign is concentrating its efforts on the streets and online.
That strategy may be born of necessity rather than desire, but it’s working exceptionally well. The No vote has slumped while the Yes vote is soaring, and the UK government’s most recent independence poll was apparently so dreadful for the No campaign that it’s been buried despite costing the taxpayer £46,500.
That’s hardly surprising. Where the no campaign is strident, negative and even threatening, the Yes campaign is relentlessly optimistic. National Collective’s slogan is typical. “Imagine a better Scotland,” it says, claiming that “creating a new nation” is “the ultimate creative act”.
Artists are good at the imagination thing, which probably explains why so many of them are pro-independence: from Mogwai to Frankie Boyle, Irvine Welsh to Mark Millar, the Yes side is packed with famous and credible names. The No campaign has Susan Boyle and tax-avoiding ex-pats.
The biggest name here tonight is Ricky Ross, singer with Deacon Blue, who describes his “journey to yes” for an approving crowd. There’s not much meat to his speech but that doesn’t really matter; the largely young audience isn’t really here for debate or in-depth analysis. The purpose of tonight’s gig is ostensibly to persuade undecided voters, but inevitably it’s largely preaching to the converted, as demonstrated by the enthusiastic response to the charmless and unfunny novelty songs of “Lady Alba” and her Bullshitingdon Club.
It’s not all bad. Jenny Lindsay’s poetry is sharply observed, and Robbie MacLeod’s acoustic set, sung in Gaelic, is genuinely beautiful. There’s a completely unexpected and properly lovely performance on the harp – unscheduled, which makes it arguably the first ever case of a drive-by harping – and National Collective’s own video about dreaming up a better Scotland is the kind of thing that stirs even the most hardened soul.
Would any of this persuade a No voter to change their mind? I doubt it, but that’s not really what’s going on here. Tonight isn’t about converting people; that will happen later in conversations in pubs and clubs, coffee shops and canteens. This is really a Yes event for Yes people – an opportunity for people who’ve followed the debate online to meet up in the real world, enjoy a gig and share the excitement of being the Rebel Alliance to Westminster’s Death Star. As one of the movement’s unofficial slogans puts it: Aye, have a dream.
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