Ian Swanson: Why Nick Nairn moved from ‘No’ vote

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Battle for votes in the independence referendum hotting up, with celebrities looked upon as pawns in game.

Celebrity chef Nick Nairn has turned down an invitiation to Number Ten after detecting a “whiff of cynicism” in David Cameron’s St Andrew’s Day celebration in Downing Street two days after the SNP launches its white paper on 
independence.

Mr Cameron has said he wants to appeal to Scottish hearts and minds over the referendum. And the November 28 event is meant to celebrate “the contribution Scotland makes to the United Kingdom”.

The Prime Minister is hoping other famous Scots – including Andy Murray and Sir Chris Hoy – will attend. Actor John Barrowman, who played Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, has reportedly confirmed he will go.

But Nairn – who says he has recently moved from a definite No voter to a “don’t know” – was put off by the politics behind the invite. He says: “There is a whiff of cynicism about it and I resent being manipulated.”

Glasgow comedian Kevin Bridges was blunter in his reaction, posting the invitation to his 644,000 Twitter followers, and telling them: “Got this through the door today, my heart is saying ‘f*** that’ and my head is saying ‘Aye, f*** that’.”

Celebrities and politics is a tricky business. Sometimes it works well - Labour’s Harold Wilson gained street cred from friendly appearances with the Beatles. The SNP has benefitted from extra high-profile publicity as a result of Sir Sean Connery’s support for the party and independence.

But there are also pitfalls. Politicians don’t always get what they hope for when they try to grab some reflected glory from figures who are more popular with the public than they are. Tony Blair’s schmoozing with pop stars as part of Cool Britannia had mixed results.

And celebrities can also find themselves in trouble.

Hollywood actors Brian Cox and Alan Cumming took part in the launch of the Yes campaign last year – but immediately faced questions about whether their enthusiasm for an independent Scotland meant they would be moving back to their native land.

Cumming later bought a one-bedroomed flat in Polwarth in a bid to make sure he had a vote in next September’s referendum – only to find election bosses warning that the Edinburgh address would have to be his primary residence if he was going to qualify.

So why do they do it? From the politicians’ point of view, the prospect of big-name celebrities helping to win more people to their cause is obviously seductive – and they take a calculated risk that the celebrities concerned won’t step too far out of line or embarrass them.

From the celebrities’ side, the benefits may not be quite so obvious. Making their political views public might alienate fans of an opposite persuasion – but do they care? They don’t have to win votes, after all.

Campaigning politically may raise their profile because it gives them another dimension – even Sir Sean has probably got some extra coverage because of his support for the SNP. And if celebrities are genuinely committed to a cause, they would want to put their fame to good use.

Celebrity endorsement may not change anyone’s vote, but parties and campaigns can nonetheless attract attention – and perhaps even get a hearing for their case – if voters see they have stars on their side.

But when it comes to the referendum, it is worth remembering that celebrities will have just one vote like the rest of us – and some of them won’t even have that.