On a dry December evening two Fridays before Christmas the ramped entrance of Edinburgh’s The Wee Red Bar is lined with five placards. Each imparts a message – a pun on words, two song titles, a question and a statement, all in bold black type on white cardboard. Aye, Have a Dream. That Ship Called Dignity. Labour of Love. What Should Scotland Do? The UK is Over! None of this is paying tribute to 1980s Scottish pop, per se. Nor is it selling a cheeky wee gathering of the city’s most avid Martin Luther King devotees. Tonight, behind the diminutive frames of two unmenacing bouncers – who break only to allow foyer entry – is the official Edinburgh launch of National Collective.
Set within the grounds of the Edinburgh College of Art, the creative, independence-seeking non-party movement is holding an east coast soiree following the post-hype of its Glasgow version in October. Glasgow branch event organiser, Amy Shipway, has no hesitation in expressing what she believes is behind the success of National Collective’s growing membership of 1,400 amid its 80,000 monthly website visits. “Word of mouth and social media” says Amy. “We are a non-party, yet political campaign. We’re all accepting of each other’s political persuasion which offers grounds for healthy, open and positive debate.”
National Collective is not the newest Yes campaign kid on the non-political block, having been founded by a small group of writers and artists in Edinburgh in 2011. Yet from the early days of mustering momentum, adding activists and steering a vision of “imagining a better Scotland,” it has succeeded in sidestepping tartan-lip homage and conventional party buzzwords; if only to create brand new incarnations, as found on its own media and policyspeak. In a somewhat fated timeliness it was the campaign’s David versus Goliath handbags at dawn victoire last April that propelled National Collective’s previous low key notoriety into the outside lane of the referendum psyche.
The campaign published an article on its website questioning the ethical and business backgrounds of the Better Together campaign’s then highest single donor, Ian Taylor, president and chief executive of the world’s largest trading oil company, Vitol. When Taylor’s lawyers threatened legal action against the article’s author, National Collective’s communications manager Michael Gray and one of its founding members Ross Colquhoun, the campaign’s web domain was shut down. The mainstream media bit into the story as National Collective refused to be bullied into submission. Had his physique permitted it, the exposé had Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond doing cartwheels through parliamentary corridors. The Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, was left to defend Tory supporter Taylor’s near £500k donation brokered by former Labour chancellor and Better Together chairman, Alistair Darling. In part, the narrative resembled an episode of The Thick of It, Holyrood-style. A little later, Taylor and his lawyers backed down, National Collective’s website was back in business and 21-year-old student, Gray was hailed poster boy of the month for citizen journalism.
Entry into the launch is free, though evidently, the foyer table bucket and implicit wink from a cloakroom volunteer suggests all donations are welcome. The campaign is run on the creative energy of its activists – and the voices of young articulates like Amy. Though, not all members are loveys and artsies by vocation as she explains: “One of our leading members is a biology teacher, therefore we are not exclusively artistic types. It’s people who align themselves with a creative approach to life, politics and imagining a better Scotland. That diversity is a key strength.”
Inside The Wee Red Bar, a growing buzz about the evening’s itinerary sweeps steadily through its confines. An omnipotent dark-crimson glow lays shine on everything and everyone present. The area concedes all the fixtures and fittings of a typical college annex turned into a made good performance space. Red Stripes and Newcastle Brown Ales are served from the bar hatch at £3 a pop. If you prefer a vessel for your beer, you can pick up a small plastic tumbler for the job; it’s that kind of bar.
National Collective volunteers float through the room informally fulfilling the meets and greets, for guests known and unknown. Their white t-shirts, emblazoned in black bold “National Collective” are akin to the branding style of the entrance placards. Magnus Rory Jamieson, self-confessed infrequent contributor and token science guy of the campaign’s resource pool, has all the look of a Prague Spring student activist with his side-shedded neck length hair and thick-rimmed specs.
First up on the bill is Edinburgh band Clipper, performing a debut of tracks inspired by the Lockerbie bombing. Leading this sextet is front man Malcolm Irving whose deep throated Nick Cave-esque style is hard to turn away from, despite the band’s first gig rustiness. The subject matter of their lyrics back-dropped by projected images of National Collective cards and banners held in front of iconic Scottish landmarks sets a unprovoked virtual tone to the evening, as if to say: “this is our Scotland, let’s have it.”
To the rear of the bar, one of the trio founders of the campaign, Ross Colquhoun cuts the figure of a young patriarch surveying and mentally cataloguing the evening. With a gentle, puffed-out chest and all-seeing eye he comments to fellow activist, Victoria Kerr: “Around six of our members have suggested that we go more party political. I was like, ‘No, no, no.’” His no’s are elongated to stress the point. True to the mission of the collective he was part of establishing over two years ago, his words suggest the role is as much about keeping party politics away from the doorstep of campaign meetings as it is carrying a purely creative agenda through until the referendum.
Aspiring Edinburgh singer-songwriter, Liz Cronin, follows on with a self-pre-empted “twitchy weirdo routine” that fits in subtly just prior to the athletic “Girlfriend” dance display by red balaclava wearing Glasgow choreographer Ruth Mills. An act blending feminism and dance theatre is amplified by a fickle American voice that makes the comforting claim, “I don’t want to burn bras, I want to wear two bras.” To which end only M&S may feel a little less threatened by Mills’ revelation on sisterhood.
Meanwhile Amy’s friend, a tentative newcomer to campaign events has her picture taken by the in-house photographer, Simon Forsythe, while she holds an “I Am National Collective” chest-sized banner, it having reached her as it passed through the room. Amy looks on, her face offering a sense of pride in the potentiality of recruiting another activist to the cause. Having been part of the “Connae No Dae That” protest over Glasgow City Council’s proposed raising of the Duke of Wellington plinth in the city’s Royal Exchange Square last month, Amy suggests a tongue-in-cheek approach is key to catching public awareness. “What that demonstrated,” she says, “is that there’s a different way to do politics other than the status quo. When people really get together they can intervene and make a different in our communities. If you apply that to the bigger picture of social justice, it shows that taking a creative approach can empower people and have a different impact, which is a parallel to the campaign that we run.”
The National Collective considers its acceptance of people from differing political persuasions a strength of their campaign, as Amy states: “We have members of the Green Party, of the SNP. It’s a natural factor that people are going to be politically affiliated. Though, when we speak for National Collective we don’t speak for the Green Party, SNP or any other party.” Later in the evening a rumour gets around that a Labour member present didn’t want her photo taken because she was worried about the consequences.
Glasgow hip-hop rapper, Loki, like a razor rash to the sensibilities, takes the mic stating that in preparation for his acapella turn he has arrived “with something so disgusting, it would make Frankie Boyle go pale.” The audience gives loud whoop and holler to Loki’s vents of frustration at “the portrait of Scots by TV talking heads” and “the rudiments of tabloid intellect.” His act captures the mood, though no one is left feeling completely at ease as he holds inquest to social complacency and self-rightousness in each of us.
One thing that appears evident is National Collective’s realistic sense of uncertainty as to what lies beyond the referendum regardless of outcome. Despite this, both Ross and Amy agree that being unable to predict a Scotland beyond 19th September 2014 does not affect their goal. “Nobody here in this room or outside of it knows what will happen,” Ross acknowledges. Despite this, their focused short-sightedness has been commended by Scottish national dailies, one of which recently described National Collective as “the most significant cultural voice to emerge in the referendum debate so far.” Near the close of the performances, out in the foyer Michael gives a wry smile suggesting the success of the evening’s launch. The independent Scotland he and his fellow activists state a creative case for shows all the signs of switching from that outside lane into the thick of the debate, right up until referendum polling day – and most likely beyond.