One of my fondest memories of active politics was being privileged enough to attend – and speak at – the rally held in the Old Royal High school to re-start the Yes, Yes campaign for devolution in August 1997. It was a day to savour.
Jointly convened by Henry McLeish and Winnie Ewing, it marked the political debuts of David Hayman and Sean Connery. Both made very personal, aspirational speeches. Labour and SNP foes, sat cheek by jowl, having parked traditional enmities for the duration of the campaign. The late, great Bill Spiers, then Secretary General of the STUC, sat laughing and joking with Roseanna Cunningham. When Dougie MacLean sang Caledonia, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The highlight was undoubtedly the arrival of Willie McIllvanney, Archie Fisher and other sundry members of their rackety, devolution charabanc that was setting off on a tour of the country to take the argument to the people with a mix of prose, craic, song and poetry. Wonderful.
A trip down memory lane is all very well but why I am wittering on about something that happened nearly twelve years ago?
Because it marked the turning point in the campaign, coming after a forced hiatus in activity caused by the death and funeral of Princess Diana. Everyone agreed (at least publicly) that it was inappropriate to continue electioneering in such circumstances; heck, the Scotland team was forced to postpone an important match so that the country could be seen to pay its respects. But the pause was a welcome one and it enabled the Yes, Yes team (officially called Scotland FORward) to gather its thoughts and re-enter the fray with renewed purpose. The ground was hit running that Sunday and no one looked back.
What happened was a five day campaign: everything that had gone before was irrelevant. The halt to active campaigning effectively wiped the slate clean. And recalling it all, while pleasant enough on its own, has got me wondering if the impending Royal nuptials might not result in a similar situation?
A recent survey (polls for elections; surveys for everything else) suggested that 80% of Scots couldn’t care less about “the wedding”. What, I wonder, are the other 20% thinking of? But to set it within the context of our (okay my) narrow view of all things Royal is to fall into a trap. This is a global event that will be watched by 2 billion people. It and its merchandise have flooded our airwaves and supermarket shelves, and while Scots will spend an average 50p each – someone, somewhere is welcome to mine – that still amounts to a quite staggering £2.5 million on tat and memorabilia.
Nothing is too tasteless it seems. Mugs, teatowels, T-shirts, umbrellas, plates, coins, and underpants. All of it wrapped in Unionjackery. Whether we like it or not, our country is going to be wrapped in the Union flag this Friday. We will be invited to rejoice in their and our union. The Royal Family, we will be reminded, brings us altogether in our shared values and whatnots. Just one big, happy island nation. One big, happy family no less. Better together, worse apart.
Only a major Royal event is capable of re-igniting long buried, ignored or barely conscious feelings of Britishness: this was something that exercised minds in 1997 as well.
The biggest threat to the SNP’s march to an historic second term was unlikely to involve a slip up from its campaign team. Nor its activists running out of steam, nor even the erstwhile First Minister putting his foot in it with a throwaway remark – some lessons are learned the first time round. The other parties have proven to be barely credible opponents in the battle for Holyrood, none of them capable of hiding their foibles and flaws under the bed, in the way that the SNP has skillfully done.
No, the real danger lies in events. And Friday provides the biggest test of them all. Given that we’ve all known about this one for months, and the media have helped to shift it to the top of the agenda in the last week or so, it will hardly have escaped the SNP leadership’s attention. They are a canny lot and they will have to be, if they are to prevent the Wedding spoiling their own coronation appointment with the Scottish people on 5 May.
The last thing the SNP wants is to wake up on Saturday morning to discover the campaign restarts from a new and very different place, for there is a real risk that the Royal Wedding will serve to remind many who are about to dabble with an SNP vote for the first time what it is the party truly stands for. If Labour had the sense and the balls, it would re-run the awful “divorce is an expensive business” billboards and adverts from 1999, from Saturday onwards.
The mistake the SNP must avoid is to dismiss the importance of the Wedding and indeed, its relevance to the campaign and to the mood of the nation. It matters not a jot to me and my likes, but it, the dress and all the details are the focus of water cooler, schoolgate and pub conversations all over the country. Funnily enough, there are millions of people in this country who do not live and breathe politics, but for whom the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life – its human interest – is far more important. Worse, another four day weekend will ensure that the wedding hangover and coverage continues to crowd out the election right up to the final days of the campaign.
It could blot out all that has gone before. It could raise notions of Britishness above those of Scottishness for the first time in a long time. It could derail the SNP’s juggernaut.
Come Saturday, we could be about to see a sensational shift in voter mood and the most thrilling finale to an election campaign in recent years. Since September 1997 in fact.