SATURDAY shoppers in Glasgow might have assumed they had wandered onto the set of a Braveheart re-make.
In George Square, or ‘Freedom Square’ as it was ambitiously re-named by over-zealous ‘Yessers’ in 2014, the crowds had gathered, bearing Saltires.
The inevitable soundtrack was Flower of Scotland, as SNP star turns Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon took to a makeshift stage, microphones in hand.
Mr Yousaf, a cross between a fairground barker and a pound-shop Tommy Sheridan, didn’t need amplification as he geed up the audience for ‘the main act’.
Here was a minister who holds one of the great offices of state – allegedly running the justice system – railing against the ‘arrogant’ UK Government for its bedroom tax, its ‘rape clause’, and of course its Trident missiles.
He and his Miss Sturgeon, who normally gives these occasions a wide berth, morphed into student union rabble-rousers.
There was a good deal of foam-flecked indignation as they condemned the Tories for ignoring the will of the Scottish people: the same Tories, incidentally, who sanctioned the independence referendum five years ago.
When the Nationalist leader appeared, there was yet more vitriol: taking her cue from her warm-up act, she played up the inclusiveness of Scotland under the SNP – before making it clear that she loathed the Tories. No room for them in diverse modern Scotland…
The rally showcased the two faces of the SNP leadership – on TV interviews, in parliament, and at book festivals, Miss Sturgeon flaunts her Remain credentials as a beacon of liberal tolerance, winning praise from Left-wing commentators for her cosmopolitanism.
On Saturday, the mask slipped, and we saw Miss Sturgeon and one of her most senior ministers (possibly making a none-too-subtle early bid to replace his boss), almost snarling with rage.
In an election context, the pitch was clear, and all too familiar: for the SNP, this is now a campaign solely about separatism, and the procedural mechanism by which another attempt at securing a second referendum could be made.
So, dust off the hashtags – #indyref2020 – but don’t mention ‘Scexit’: the First Minister has brushed off any suggestion of a parallel between Scottish independence and Brexit, because she contends that no-one really knew what they were voting for in 2016, whereas in 2014 we were all fully briefed.
Nor would a confirmatory poll would be required for independence, despite Miss Sturgeon’s backing for a ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit.
On Saturday, there was no scope for any reflection on the intellectual gymnastics required to make sense of these convoluted, and utterly bankrupt, arguments.
Mr Yousaf urged the assembled throng to ‘look into the whites of the eyes’ of their friends and neighbours, and persuade them of the merits of ripping up the UK.
SNP supporters have been keen to highlight that the election should be solely about matters reserved to Westminster, not those under the jurisidction of Holyrood.
Take a quick look at the Nationalists’ track record on schools and the NHS, just for starters, to understand why.
But independence? Absolutely, that is a legitimate topic for debate, as long as you agree with the essential proposition that it would be a democratic outrage not to grant the Scottish people the right to choose their destiny (again).
There would be a decidedly chilly reception at rallies of this type for anyone who might gently point out that there is no indication of a majority in favour of another referendum, let alone independence.
Miss Sturgeon has been criticised by many Nationalists for steering clear of marches and processions, possibly because she knows the photo opportunities could be risky – placards about ‘Tory scum’, which have appeared before, might be going a little too far.
She might feel there’s something demeaning about taking part – she is First Minister, after all.
Maybe she thought it was better to leave it to others to get the Saltires out and drone on interminably (and erroneously) about the lack of media coverage.
Miss Sturgeon’s natural habitat now is the literary festival – a very different kind of stage-show; at one such gathering over the summer, she clapped along with crime writer Val McDermid, not long after official statistics revealed that drug deaths had soared.
Eventually, Miss Sturgeon had to succumb, despite knowing that wavering voters aren’t impressed by the sight of large numbers of activists, some of them woad-painted, forcing road closures at the weekend.
At events like these, she’s also preaching to the converted – but the converted are fed up with what they perceive as inertia on the part of their leader on the core mission of establishing Scotland as a breakaway state.
Now there’s a tentative timetable for a new Scexit poll in place, albeit one that is unlikely to prove realistic – though if Jeremy Corbyn were to win the election next month, and turn to the SNP to prop up his minority government, who knows?
But take a look on YouTube for interviews with Miss Sturgeon on two key issues: the first is a recent exchange with an ITV journalist, who grilled her about those statistics on drug-related deaths.
Miss Sturgeon seemed unprepared, even clueless – she didn’t have the answers and plainly couldn’t summon the energy to offer any meaningful defence of her government’s performance.
It was a different story on Saturday, when she was far more spirited – but then she was speaking about a cause that she actually believes in.
In the other interview, on Channel 4 last year, Miss Sturgeon seemed to forget how much it would cost to set up an independent Scotland, even though the figure was in her own party’s Growth Commission report – or maybe she hadn’t read it.
The interviewer reminded her (or perhaps informed her) that the report’s estimate was £450million – although the Common Weal pro-independence think-tank has said it could be up to £40billion.
These are details best excluded from pamphlets, and manifestos, along with any mention of the long-term plan to ditch sterling, or the hyper-austerity that would be required to counter a deficit of nearly £13billion.
Demonisation, ‘othering’ – that’s all in a day’s work, and from now on we can expect regular public invective from Miss Sturgeon and her team, at any number of rallies.
Ask them about any aspect of their actual job, however, and you’d struggle to detect even a fraction of the passion that was on display at the weekend – when two old troupers strained every sinew to put on a worthwhile show for their fanbase.
That’s because they’ve given up even pretending they care about anything other than a narrow-minded agenda that long ago swapped credibility for barely disguised prejudice.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 5, 2019.