“Good morning. My name is Jackie and I am from Legacy here at the Olympic Park...” This was probably a well-worn joke, accessible to those who liked the spoof Olympic sitcom 2012 and that sort of thing, but Jackie couldn’t have done more to lighten the mood as she conjured up in our minds a speech by the lady from Sustainability, and an extended coach ride that took us from Stratford International station to the Olympic Park, via Wembley Stadium.
Disturbingly, it was true. She was from Legacy, and she began to explain the regeneration programme. Happily, it created enough of a distraction to allow for initial conversations. I introduced myself to the lady sitting next to me, called Olga it turned out, who informed me she was the CEO of a medical imaging firm. “Why are you here?” I asked. “I do not know,” she replied in a faintly Eastern European accent. “Why are you here?” she retorted. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. After this verbal mirroring finished we determined to stick together in case everyone else knew why they were there.
We needn’t have. Even Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dame Tessa Jowell looked slightly wide-eyed at their inclusion (understandably in Tessa’s case – she had had to endure the ranting of the historian David Starkey the night before as a fellow panelist on Question Time), despite the fact that they had more right than others to be at the venue, but weren’t necessarily connected to what was about to be said.
In a sense, I had a connection with the content (namely a couple of articles I’ve written for the New Statesman website on the subject, with the predictable quotidian abuse for doing so) but not the venue. In PR terms maybe we were, collectively, engaged in a piece of cosmic cancellation that rendered the audience almost entirely neutral.
I had already heard at 6:30am on Radio 4 “that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be saying later today at the Olympic Velodrome that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be emailing, texting and telling their Scottish friends to vote to stay in the Union on 18th September...” so I was simultaneously miffed and relaxed about being bussed in as a member of a well-dressed group of extras. To my surprise, Olga, an expert in image analysis, hadn’t clocked that we should be more interested in analysing the image, rather than the content.
Because, as it turned out, and for no other reason than coincidence, the Prime Minister did attempt something that I had urged in a recent New Statesman article – to avoid the technical arguments on Scottish independence, and appeal to the emotions. The “Better Together” campaign appeals (like its spokesman, Alistair Darling) to the mind, while Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP – who doesn’t have the fig leaf of a thought-through policy or a contingency plan to cover his political ambitions – appeals to the heart.
David Cameron’s intervention was specifically designed to redress that balance. And it was a lesson in public speech-making; admittedly sometimes too insistent, sometimes a little too red-faced in delivery, sometimes a little too anecdotal and sometimes veering towards making the case for independence (the list of Scottish cultural and business successes was impressive), but always, and this is something that really cannot be doubted, an enunciation of a personal desire to see the union stay together because he genuinely believes only chaos and diminution lie ahead should Scotland vote “Yes” to independence.
Salmond’s response was unsurprisingly aggressive – he even contrived to use the phrase I predicted for him when he said “game on” during an interview on the BBC One O’Clock News. With Salmond, it really is like waiving a stick in front of a dog when it comes to the points of view of others, especially if you are English, a Prime Minister and called David Cameron. Each and every piece of opposition has to be stamped upon as though he and the SNP are creating an informational version of a Celtic North Korea. But he failed to land a killer blow, even missing the obvious “on yer bike” line for choosing the velodrome as the venue for the speech.
The economic situation of the UK is unlikely to help Salmond in the coming months; there is little to knock the UK off course from its muted recovery, with signs that a new credit cycle is starting while unemployment is falling, and demand for graduates is increasing. These are all things that lead people to desire to maintain the status quo. And since few people know about – or are sufficiently interested in – the niceties of sovereign credit ratings, single currencies or the need for new over-arching institutions to police an independent Scotland, Cameron’s appeal to the heart is a welcome addition to the technocratic angle. It couldn’t have come out any clearer if you’d passed the whole thing through one of Olga’s award-winning image processing algorithms.