The Prestige: Thoughts on the SNP use of celebrities

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'Battle for Britain' / Surian Soosay / CC
'Battle for Britain' / Surian Soosay / CC

While contention remains over whether Lord Forsyth reacted harshly to Alan Cumming’s opinions on Question Time (7/6/12), important questions have been raised about the purpose of SNP celebrity speakers.

More of a trick than a stunt, celebrity SNP supporters are often deployed to substitute for the sheer force of presence of Alex Salmond that so much of the independence argument is reliant on.

Like the 2010 Christopher Nolan film The Prestige, this ‘trick’ can be broken down into three parts – the setting up of the stage, the performance of the actors, and, in success or failure, the revealing of the truth.

  1. The Setup Choosing the actors

Michael Forsyth perhaps assumed he was making an innovative point when challenging Alan Cumming on his entitlement to views on Scottish independence as a UK-US duel citizen living abroad. Unfortunately, the First Minister precluded this at the launch of the ‘Yes Campaign’ when he stated:

“We unite behind a declaration of self-evident truth. The people who live in Scotland are best placed to make the decisions that affect Scotland.”

It is a curiously vulnerable Achilles heal for the SNP to contradict themselves by invoking the star quality of Scots who do not live in Scotland to prop up the case for Scots who do to govern themselves. Sir Sean Connery lives in the Bahamas, Alan Cumming holds US-UK dual citizenship and is based out of Los Angeles and actor Brian Cox is based out of New York.

If the SNP are prepared to utilise Scots who have ‘made it in the world’ and are ambassadors for the potential of the Scottish people, why not use the colossal example of the 2 million plus Scots that left behind their native land between 1821 and 1915, and again in the 1920’s and 1930’s, to make substantial cultural and economic contributions to nations like Australia, the USA, New Zealand and Canada? Such examples are robust and  supportive arguments in favour of the Scottish capability to exist and contribute independently of the UK.

The answer is the facts of Scottish history do not lend credence to the ambitions of the Scottish National Party. The majority of people understand that the global successes in Scottish history stem from the achievement of establishing an enduring partnership with England that went on to profoundly influence the world. There is no shame in admitting that two proud and unique nations did more together than might have been accomplished separately. Empire and the cultural association it created, in no small part spearheaded by Scottish emigration, was the glue that reinforced the Union of Scotland and England as an actively relevant political enterprise with a mark to make on the world.

Yet the political age we live in accords more rewards to personality than to dry details. The SNP are fundamentally aware that using well-known faces as independence endorsers is more politically effective. Impersonal facts and figures about a Scottish and English co-enterprise do not cut the same figure as a smiling, famous face telling them the opposite.

It is on this premise, this stage – and with an alarming disengagement towards selected parts of the history of Scotland with England and their global experience together- that SNP celebrities make the case for independence.

  1. The Performance Does it work?

The SNP approach to personality first, substance later, is analogous to the New Labour project of the 1990’s. The culmination of a series of false starts and dress rehearsals, New Labour became the most formidable PR-machine in recent history. Designed to win by showcasing support from big names to dazzle the electorate and inspire confidence, it was endorsed by the celebrities of the day – including a somewhat indecisive Brain Cox – with details and policy, by the admission of Tony Blair, given secondary priority to the importance of presentation.

This very situation was seen in a microcosm at Question Time. Alan Cumming was to serve his purpose as the celebrity SNP name and the model acolyte of the independence cause. Yet he fast became the diversion from rather than the support for the independence argument when SNP MSP Alex Neil made his retort to the panel.

Revealing the SNP ‘s blasé approach to the nuances of national identity, Mr Neil purported that Britain would retain its social and cultural ties post independence. Yet he failed to consider that much of this sentiment is found in common institutions. Dissolution of the United Kingdom would result in the alienation of otherwise synonymously held cultural attachments shared by the people of the United Kingdom.

Such is the uniqueness of the UK that English, Welsh and Northern Irish heroes, battles, food, institutions and traditions can feel as much my own as Scottish cultural symbols. This would cease to be with independence. Winston Churchill would be as culturally close to me as Abraham Lincoln – iconic, but not something I can call my own.

The curious example Mr Neil gave with regard to the Royal Family confirms this. Citing the shared Monarchical ties between Norway and Sweden as a model for a redefined relationship between Scotland and England, he failed to include that this arrangement had been dissolved in 1905. The question remains why we would replace a system that has just celebrated 60 years of success on a punt for something that ‘might’ be better with no precedent to suggest it would be.

 III. The Prestige

For all the public relations triumphs of the New Labour machine, those years of government produced a legacy of empty promises, unfilled ambitions and a notorious style sofa government concentrated on short-term media mitigation rather than long-term strategy. Despite the masterly spin on the notion of ‘change’, the famous faces hid a disproportionately small policy agenda that promised much but produced little.

The SNP launched the ‘Yes Campaign’ in a cinema. Full of actors and famous faces in a place where fiction is shown, people attended expecting a result. Instead, they got celebrities telling them how good the film will be. Unfortunately, there is only so long this can go on for before people expect the film to be shown. And when it is, actors cannot change what is an inherently bad script. The trick is selling tickets to the show, not the quality of the show itself.

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About Alastair Stewart 226 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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