Edinburgh, Scotland – The campaign to make this country the world’s newest independent nation is now officially underway.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond launched the “Yes Scotland” campaign at a cinema complex in Edinburgh on Friday, with a pledge to collect one million signatures supporting independence.
He said this would be enough to win the referendum planned by the Scottish government for Autumn 2014.
The campaign was launched in Fountainbridge, the Edinburgh neighbourhood where Sean Connery grew up – and once worked as a milkman.
There had been speculation in the Scottish media that the James Bond actor would attend the launch. In the end he didn’t show, but sent a message of support saying: “This is a historic day for Scotland.”
The Scottish parliamentary press lobby, however, are an irreverent bunch, and can be hard to impress.
Among the 550 people packed into screen seven at Cineworld, one reporter from a London-based middle-market tabloid complained that “anything involving Alex Salmond does not start on time”.
Another veteran of the Scottish political scene griped that “if the movie was as late as this, they’d be throwing popcorn and doughnuts”.
“I want Scotland to become independent, not because I think we are better than any other country – but because I know we are as good as any country. “
– Alex Salmond, first minister
Despite this grumbling, at 11:23am, only a little later than scheduled, the lights were dimmed and the uplifting 1980s hit “One Great Thing” by Dunfermline folk rockers Big Country blared out over the speakers.
Over the next hour, Scottish politicians joined with Hollywood stars, including X-Men actor Alan Cumming, poets and trade unionists to explain why they were saying “yes” to an independent Scotland.
Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, was the first big speaker to take the multiplex stage, telling the audience: “I want Scotland to become independent, not because I think we are better than any other country – but because I know we are as good as any country. Like those other nations, our future, our resources and our success should be in our own hands.”
He promised the biggest community-based campaign in Scotland’s history. The “yes” declaration, which supporters can sign online, asserts: “I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland. Being independent means Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands.”
The idea of a mass petition has a strong resonance for those familiar with the history of the Scottish home rule movement.
“Scotland’s Declaration” is inspired by the National Covenant, launched in 1949 as part of a broad cross-party campaign for a Scottish Parliament. Within six months, more than one million people had signed it.
The message it invokes is that change can be built from the ground up by activists and campaigners. Organisers aim to engage with communities across the country and create a network of supporters who will run anything from coffee mornings to town hall debates.
Despite the SNP’s sweeping victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, and further wins in local elections just a few weeks ago, they still have a long way to go to convince voters to back a Scottish breakaway.
An opinion poll commissioned by the embryonic “no” campaign showed only 33 per cent of voters in Scotland want independence and 57 per cent are opposed to the idea.
Insiders believe that these numbers will close significantly if the referendum can be turned into a judgment on David Cameron’s increasingly unpopular Conservative-led government at Westminster.
“Yes Scotland” is making a case to the mainstream Scottish left that independence is a way of stopping Tory policies and spending cuts at the border.
This explains the prominence given to former Labour MP Dennis Canavan and the pitch towards old-school Labour values at the campaign launch.
“I have come to the conclusion that Westminster is completely out of touch with the people of Scotland, whereas the Scottish parliament responds more readily to the values and aspirations of the people of Scotland.“
– Dennis Canavan, Scots politician
Canavan said: “I am a convert to the cause of independence and my conversion is based on experience. Having spent 25 years at Westminster and eight years in the Scottish parliament, I have come to the conclusion that Westminster is completely out of touch with the people of Scotland, whereas the Scottish parliament responds more readily to the values and aspirations of the people of Scotland.”
In Scotland’s capital, Labour and the SNP are evenly matched and there will be an intense battle to sway undecided voters.
Union flags fluttered from the balconies of a student residence next to the cinema complex where the launch took place. Edinburgh is traditionally a conservative city associated with accountants, lawyers and royal patronage.
Margo MacDonald, who represents Edinburgh as an independent MSP in the Scottish Parliament, told Al Jazeera the city “gleams rather than shines”.
“To gleam is discreet,” she said. “It is the mark of quality, the mark of confidence. It is not sparkly. I kind of sparkle myself, I want to gleam.”
MacDonald said that Edinburgh has changed in recent years, becoming a showcase for the whole of Scotland – and independence would give it an even bigger profile on the world stage. A “yes” vote would also mean a bigger diplomatic presence in the city, she said.
According to the Scottish government, Ireland hosts 56 embassies with about 660 staff. In contrast, only about 150 people work in consular offices in Scotland. They estimate that the economic benefit of the extra jobs would run into tens of millions of pounds.
Edinburgh’s Labour Council leader, Andrew Burns, accepted that the city could benefit from being the capital of a sovereign state, but said the most major changes already came with the creation of the Scottish Parliament a decade ago.
“A lot of the potential benefits that can come to Edinburgh have already happened,” he told Al Jazeera. “We had the parliament in 1999. The new building and the bolstering of the civil service have already happened because of devolution. Any further development will be incremental rather than seismic change.”
In fact, despite the appearance that they are engaged in a struggle for Scotland’s political soul, both Labour and the SNP have been moving to the centre ground in the constitutional debate.
Nationalists no longer promote the idea of an independent nation state in the way that it is traditionally understood. Alex Salmond says he would retain the monarch as head of state, and keep the pound as Scotland’s currency.
What the SNP really want is control over North Sea oil revenues, and new tax powers to create jobs and growth in the economy.
Senior Labour politicians, including former Chancellor Alistair Darling, who is leading the “no” campaign, have already signalled that they would be willing for the Scottish parliament to have more control over taxation.
There is a growing consensus on the direction of travel. The referendum campaign will decide how far Scotland goes and who sits in the driving seat.
Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen