A Night For Scotland – Usher Hall Edinburgh, Sunday 14 September

This review originally ran on The Quietus http://thequietus.com/articles/16278-mogwai-franz-ferdinand-a-night-for-scotland-independence-review 

                                    Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 16.39.36

As voters flock to the polling stations, Susan Le May reflects on the music, media manipulation and grassroots groundswell in the final days of the Scottish Referendum

This has been the longest campaign ever in British political history. It might seem to a large percentage of those outside of Scotland that the referendum on independence has been a boil that has swollen overnight, but debates have brewed since the Edinburgh Agreement to conduct a vote was signed by Cameron and Salmond in 2012, and in the year prior to this following the SNP’s surprise victory in the Scottish Parliament general elections.

But it was less than two weeks ago that a YouGov poll stirred the hornet’s nest in Westminster, suggesting a lead for Yes – something the UK Government had never expected, or indeed made any contingencies for.

Musicians have made mixed contributions to this political discourse – arts have intertwined with politics in such a way as one would expect, but the scale of it on show tonight in Edinburgh at this concert in support of Yes may have taken some by surprise.

Whilst the sold-out Usher Hall showcase goes largely unreported the next day (particularly in the broadcast media), David Cameron makes a last minute final visit to Europe’s oil capital and the BBC shows a cobbled together ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square, led by Sir (!) Bob Geldof. Supporters of the Union are also wooed by footballer David Beckham, who has apparently managed to write a letter.

But those in favour of independence prefer to take their lead from a different selection of celebs, and this ‘Night For Scotland’ involves both the acting and musical communities and covers an array of genres from folk, pop and hip hop to post rock.

Eddi Reader – former Fairground Attraction singer and now Scots folk heroine following her invigoration of The Bard’s classics – is a wholly appropriate choice to start proceedings, adorned in the accessories of relatives passed. “I’m going to play my hit because nobody can stop me,” she quips before launching into ‘Perfect’.

The soaring vocals of ‘Wild Mountainside’ (written by Reader’s husband and Trashcan Sinatra John Douglas) swell even the hardest of heart with romantic Highland imagery and messages of sovereign empowerment. “I love No voters so much I want to give them a country,” she coos.

Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross, singer, prominent Yes campaigner and broadcaster, is compere for the first half. He looks and sounds most at ease when joining compadre Lorraine McIntosh during the pair’s musical contributions, and reminds the crowd that the band played here to protest Thatcher’s poll tax, recalling the success for that campaign and the downfall of the Iron Lady.

Surprise of the night comes from hip hop collective Stanley Odd, whose viral hit ‘Son, I Voted Yes’ sits on the right side of cheese, getting a massive applause. But does this selection of talent on display tonight show that we are shedding our Scottish Cringe, or is it part of encouraging an awkward groundswell of flag waving jingoism?

Actor Elaine C Smith’s negative pantomime sits uneasily at times, along with the sight of saltires around shoulders and the campaign broadcasts that punctuate the band’s short sets, which are full of images of untarnished, unattainable utopia. But this is how the propaganda machine works of course and tonight the crowd is soaked in positivity as a huge cheer erupts for a message from Welsh actor Rhys Ifans who urges Scotland to “be brave”.

Clearly there’s a sense tonight of preaching to the converted, and pop singer Amy Macdonald continues to rouse the crowd, but Mogwai largely let the likes of ‘Fear Satan’ speak with typically brilliant intensity engulfed in ear-splitting emotion. Franz Ferdinand, meanwhile, ramp the energy sky high, powering through the likes of pompous stomp-rock anthem ‘Take Me Out’ and other greatest hits.

Other highly respected Scottish artists like Frightened Rabbit have been vey actively involved in their promotion of the Yes message. Tonight they close this mini festival with frenetic energy, feeding the audience’s enthusiasm for change.

‘Old Old Fashioned’ and ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ are uplifting in their newfound meaning, whilst ‘Scottish Winds’ has never sounded so relevantly anthemic. ‘The Loneliness And The Scream’ closes the band’s set with its usual frenzy, before all the artists take to the stage for a sing along to the Proclaimers’ ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’.

Throughout the entire debate many musicians have openly expressed a view, not always in favour of Scotland taking its own control (King Creosote), whilst others have been visible in their choice to keep politics and musical careers separate (The Twilight Sad).

From the music stars, there were late and notable ‘conversions’ – Scots indie’s national treasure, Edwyn Collins, has recently switched from a No to Yes (pleasing his long-time Yes partner Grace Maxwell). We’ve had the downright weird – Bowie’s “stay with us” intervention via the medium of Kate Moss at the Brits in February – the pointless (Paul McCartney for The Union) and in the closing days, the desperate (Geldof). Alan McGee has written about his support for Yes and yesterday Bjork posted her view online: “Don’t let them do this to you Scotland!”

On a more local level there have been grassroots movements and splinter organisations, all based around a common aim and ethos, all part of the general Yes movement. From the artists and creatives aligned with the National Collective and their Yestival series to legendary Glasgow label Chemikal Underground, which is very open and active in its support for Yes.

RM Hubbert is eloquent in his blogs on the issue, and Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble tweeted in response to artistic interventions and the scenes from Trafalgar Square: “What do Bowie, Jagger, Geldof and Sting know about living in Scotland? Nothing that’s what.”

In the past weeks we have been increasingly inhabiting the realms of a Philip K Dick novel – we’ve been through the looking glass with a heavy dose of ‘Wag The Dog’ and echoes of a comedy-free ‘The Thick of It’.

This centuries old Union has been buoyed by the power of the state-sponsored broadcaster and the fact that none of the daily newspapers have shown support for the other side. Channel 4’s political editor Paul Mason tweeted that he was glad to no longer be working for the BBC, and that he had not seen the BBC’s “propaganda machine” working at this level since the Iraq conflict.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s current political editor, was caught out and shamed by the power of social media. Robert Peston broke the news that the PM had been putting pressure on supermarkets to bring out anti-independence scare stories, and the banks and big business did the same. At the start of the year wiki cables revealed the extent to which world leaders had been encouraged to interfere. Unions and UK government departments have urged members and employees to vote No.

In the dying few days of the campaign we have The Vow – new promises of power, or a breach of purdah by changing the goalposts in the final minutes of the game? Vague nothings that Tory MPs already say they will block, while citizens recall Nick Clegg’s signature on a ‘no tuition fees’ pledge, and Labour assurances on Saddam Hussein’s elusive WMD stockpile ring in ears. Gordon Brown has been elevated to demigod status in an effort to reassure Labour voters, the former PM standing shoulder to shoulder with the “effin Tories” in their efforts to sell outdated notions of pride and identity.

All the while we have a concurrent issue – an aid worker has been beheaded, unimagined horrors and uber-baddies also threaten the British state. The PM swithers over commitment and action, with eye-bags and sweat shine he stares down the barrel of a lens with arms aloft, pleading to the Scottish people: “Vote to save our United Kingdom”.

The Establishment spits “nationalism!” whilst simultaneously proclaiming a No vote is imperative because of a shared feeling of “Britishness”. This jarring dichotomy is further explored with another intelligent intervention from Billy Bragg, who reminds that British Nationalism and Scottish Nationalism are two very different things.

Bragg has been a musician prominent in his support for independence, particularly as a trigger for English devolution. He argues that it could be the spark that lights the fire of socialism for all the countries on these isles. When pressed, Cameron dismisses the English devolution question. “We’re not anywhere near that yet.”

Cameron appears to have developed a thirst for world domination and his delusions of British grandeur know no bounds in the closing days of this campaign. His rhetoric of family and divorce and “breaking apart” comes thick and fast, calling the United Kingdom the “greatest democracy the world has ever seen” whilst Alistair Darling has told voters to trust Westminster, even though it has the power to dissolve the Scottish Parliament if it so wishes.

But despite all this, on the day votes are cast, it’s apparently too close to call. With around 4.3 million of the roughly five million population having registered to vote, turnout will be high, and the stakes even higher. The Usher Hall crowd may already know which way they’re voting, but tonight is not a rally, it’s a time for the musical community to mark the moment, acknowledging that they pulled together for change and happily held on to hope.

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