It was a lovely, hot, sunny day yesterday, and naturally I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than sit in an underground lecture theatre in Edinburgh listening to John McTernan telling me fairy stories. He was the star turn of 'Nostival', an unexpected and ground-breaking strand of National Collective's Yestival, which is currently being hosted at Summerhall.
The written instructions for how to get to the lecture theatre were a bit daunting, not least because they somehow managed to include the word 'atrium' at least three times. National Collective's Facebook page also urged people to turn up well in advance, so to be on the safe side I arrived twenty minutes early, and found that I was the first person there. After five minutes I was still the only one in the "queue", so I started to have awful thoughts about what the consequences might be of playing the role of one-man audience to McTernan. But to my eternal relief, there was a heavy late rush. In fact, I think the second person to arrive might well have been Melissa Murray, aka the Daily Mail's least favourite freedom-lovin' American.
After we were all seated, I turned off my mobile phone, and it suddenly occurred to me that this meant I wouldn't be able to take photos. I thought to myself : "How will I explain on the blog why there are no photos of McTernan?" And then I realised I could just say I was worried he would taser me. That was going to be a joke, but as it turned out McTernan stopped midway through his talk to angrily challenge a "comrade at the back" who was filming him on a phone. He turned to Gerry Hassan (who was chairing the session) and said "I thought we had an agreement about this". The man in question apologised, and pointed out that he had arrived late and therefore would have missed any warnings about not using photography. Well, I was there at the start, and there was certainly no such warning - as McTernan knew perfectly well.
For whatever reason, a lot of people were taking notes as McTernan spoke, which is probably what I should have done if I wanted to analyse his anti-independence argument (such as it was) properly. But here are some scattergun points, based on the bits that stuck in my mind -
* McTernan claimed that "there is no country in the world more like Scotland than England". I'm not sure where that leaves our Celtic cousins Wales and Ireland.
* He claimed that the reason why an independent Scotland couldn't have a Scandinavian-style social democracy is that this is Scotland and we speak English rather than Swedish or Finnish. Honestly, I'm not making this up - that's what he said, and he didn't develop the point further. That was it. Social democracy is apparently impossible unless you speak a social democratic language.
* Prompting gales of laughter, McTernan claimed that there "is no problem in the UK that cannot be solved by a change of government". The question is, just how many of the UK's problems are the alternative government actually proposing to tackle? Would Labour reverse austerity? No. Would they end the war on benefit claimants? No.
* Compare and contrast : McTernan savaged the Yes campaign for not acknowledging that there are some risks attached to independence - he said that's "not a proper discussion". Just minutes later, he made dozens of jaws drop to the floor with his promise that he could "guarantee you a Labour government after the next election". Well, if he truly believes that there is no risk of Tory rule attached to voting No, he really should get himself down to the bookies, all of whom make a Tory victory next year either an odds-on or even bet. Does your almost comical denial of a self-evidently huge risk mean that you're not "having a proper discussion", John? (I was also amused to hear him go on to talk about the Yes campaign's "magical thinking".)
* McTernan claimed that "Alex Salmond's" plan to renationalise the Royal Mail was a colossal waste of money, and was (for reasons that were never specified) literally "impossible" anyway. Question : how do you actually go about wasting money on something that is literally impossible?
* While talking about another subject entirely, McTernan innocently dropped in the line "and that's why young people are overwhelmingly voting No". Excellent timing, I must say, coming just hours before the publication of a Survation poll showing an 11% lead for Yes among 16-24 year olds. And those figures are scarcely untypical.
* He claimed on at least four separate occasions that by becoming independent, Scotland would be leaving the "fifth-largest economy in the world". In reality, the UK has not been the fifth-largest economy since France overtook it several years ago. Indeed, for a while it had slipped to seventh place after being overtaken by Brazil, and it's only a matter of time before that happens again.
* To general astonishment, including even from an otherwise sympathetic Gerry Hassan, McTernan indignantly took issue with the irrefutable claim from an audience member that he is a spin doctor. When he realised that people weren't impressed with his protestations that he is a humble freelance journalist, he started spluttering "I like Aussie Rules football! I'm...I'm...a gardener!" He also seemed to think that "spin doctor" was a term of abuse, of the sort that only the Yes campaign would bandy about. It was then pointed out that he used the term "cybernat", at which point he insisted that the cybernat phenomenon was real, and had no equivalent on the No side. Hilarity ensued (perhaps because most of the audience had been abused on social media at some point by anti-independence trolls).
* He persevered with the risible fantasy that Alex Salmond has direct personal control over each and every online independence supporter - "if I was advising the Yes campaign, I'd have told them to call off the dogs".
* Undecided voters should probably be aware that one of the reasons McTernan wants you to vote No is that he thinks it would abolish for all time one key aspect of democracy, namely the right to national self-determination. He pondered whether it would be possible to ever hold another independence referendum, even after thirty years had passed, and he flatly declared that it wouldn't, because that's "against the British constitution". Frankly, I'm not sure that's true (he appears to be making up the unwritten British constitution as he goes on), but if it is, do we really want to vote to abolish the democratic rights of the unborn for the remainder of time? That's what McTernan and his ultra-authoritarian chums are proposing.
* He trotted out the "one million skilled immigrants" thing again, and swatted away clarifications from the audience that this would be over a long period of time, and would thus only entail a small increase on recent levels of annual immigration. He said that anyone from the EU could already come here if they wanted, and therefore "Alex Salmond" must be looking at Africa and Asia to make up the shortfall. "Remember, these would be skilled immigrants," he added with a sneer. Yeah, of course, because everyone knows there are no skilled workers at all in China - the biggest nation on Earth, and the world's second-largest economy.
* When it was suggested that an independent Scotland would be more democratic as it would always get the government it voted for, McTernan claimed that democracy primarily consists of UK Labour "learning the lessons" when it suffers a defeat. This of course always entails modifying Labour's programme for government to appeal more to centre-right voters in Middle England. It's essentially the Tom Harris position - "maturity" demands that everyone accepts his preferred New Labour policies, and because independence would strip away the requirement for "maturity", independence is by definition a bad (and rather incomprehensible) thing.
* He angrily challenged someone who talked about "your Westminster system", and insisted they should have said "our Westminster system". After all, who would realistically think that a New Labour spin doctor could possibly claim more ownership of the Westminster system than a pro-independence activist?
Overall, it was an enjoyable session in a "let's boo at the pantomime villain" sort of way, although I was slightly disturbed that almost everyone there seemed to be pro-independence - obviously if Yestival is to have the desired effect, it will have to reach out to undecided voters to some extent. There were a couple of people who asked McTernan quite nuanced questions, but I got the strong impression that even they would probably be voting Yes. Oh, and there was a very nice chap from Barcelona who was researching the referendum, and who asked me a few questions before we went in. But other than him, no obvious neutrals. Perhaps Yestival will have more luck bringing in casual visitors when it visits smaller communities.