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Committed Tuppence-worth : When Celebrities Dabble in Scottish Politics

Robert Wirth
p. 103-127


One particularly fascinating aspect of the referendum on Scotland’s future was the inordinate involvement and engagement of Britain’s celebrities on both sides of the debate. Well-known names either endorsed or opposed one of the two campaigns – either they did this willingly, out of a sense of commitment to the cause, or they were, perhaps, journalistically or politically coerced into taking sides. By way of select examples, this paper will examine the role of celebrities who engaged in or were instrumentalised in the debate, how they were acclaimed or criticised, and in how far their endorsement meant they were genuinely committed to a cause, and it will also look at the role of celebrity endorsement in influencing the degree of participation in the debate, the numbers voting at the polls and the final outcome of the referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country.

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1On the 18th of September 2014, the referendum on Scotland’s independence was held. It was lost by the Yes-campaign while the Pro-Union campaign managed to convince about 55% of the eligible Scottish electorate to stay committed to the Union.1 Ever since the Edinburgh Agreement between Alex Salmond and David Cameron in 20122, the Scottish public had been bombarded with news coverage on the Scottish referendum, turning the referendum debate itself into something that Douglas Kellner – following Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacle3 – calls a “megaspectacle”4. One opinion poll followed the next, and the headlines were redolent of trending news topics such as EU-membership, a currency plan-B, the future of Trident, the oil, the NHS and so forth.

2This extensive coverage of the referendum, either by the long list of newly-emerged pro-or anti-independence websites or by the traditional media created a platform where the political debate could flourish and, at the same time, fuelled further demand for a more sensationalist discourse. The 24-hour-news cycle of today, is, of course, geared to filling airtime while keeping high viewing-figures in mind: nowadays, we see a degree of infotainment that not even the prophetic Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death5, could have foreseen in his wildest projections. So it comes as no surprise that journalists, fishing for the next big story, would try to collect the opinions and statements of people in whom the general public was already interested. Even though the struggle to attain independence did not feature any violence to speak of, as many nationalist campaigns in other countries tend to, some of the rhetoric bandied about in the Scottish debate did at times sound like the language of war: talk was rife of rallying the troops, deploying legions of foot-soldiers in the streets, fighting political skirmishes and battles, dividing and conquering. Most importantly, “an army of … celebrities”6, as the Daily Star dubbed them, were led into the field either to “love bomb”7 or intimidate Scotland into remaining in the Union or else to encourage the Scots to go-it-alone.

3The celebrities, who engaged in the debate, both those who endorsed the break-away and those who publicly endorsed the status quo of the UK, included a glittering list of showbiz names and public figures. There were actors, comedians, writers, athletes, TV presenters, academics, captains of industry, politicians and heads of state at home and abroad. They were Scottish and English in the main, but international celebrities also entered or were dragged into the debate, if only in the form of sound-bites given voluntarily or under media or perhaps even political coercion. The pervasive and inordinate celebrity endorsement that could be witnessed throughout the decision-making process on Scotland’s future represents a particularly fascinating aspect of the pre-referendum debate and this paper will examine the role of celebrity endorsement in influencing the degree of participation in the debate, the numbers voting at the polls and the final outcome of the referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country. At times the coverage of such endorsements seemed to outshine and perhaps smother the views of more informed and balanced voices, in part, of course, due to the media’s tendency to prefer sensationalism to regular political discussion. Within the spectacle of the media circus, together with many other media pundits, celebrities both party-politically aligned and also non-aligned were able to proffer their tuppence-worth and freely propagate their views to try to influence those eligible to vote.

4This paper will attempt to give examples of celebrities, be they alive, dead or invented, who engaged in or were instrumentalised in the debate, how they were acclaimed or criticised, and in how far their endorsement meant they were genuinely committed to a cause.

Celebrity Endorsement

What Is a Celebrity ?

5Cultural pessimist Daniel Boorstin’s definition of a celebrity, as a “person who is [only] known for being well-known”8, doesn’t sufficiently do justice to this cultural phenomenon today, especially when it comes to voicing political opinion. “The human pseudo-event”9, as he calls the celebrity, is someone whose exalted social status is based on fame alone - or even notoriety, without the need for real talent, achievement or capability. One indyref example of this type, which Christopher Cook also calls the “ordinary celebrity”10, might be the Scottish Euro-million lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir, who to a large extent financed the Yes campaign.11 On the whole, however, it would be wrong to suggest that Boorstin’s archetype of celebrity alone played a significant role in the debate, as there were plenty of other voices to be heard throughout the debate, voices of high-profile individuals who, at a push, might even in Thomas Carlyle’s terms be considered ‘heroes’ rather than mere products of the culture industry. And, arguably, as Pamela M. Moores has observed, becoming a celebrity does at least involve some sort of talent in itself :

  • 12 Moores, P. M. 1991, p. 131.

With the growth of the mass media and the cult of star personalities, celebrities who may be much less distinguished intellectually, but have other talents, notably communication skills and personal charisma, also have the opportunity to influence opinion, not necessarily by joining a party or standing as an election candidate, but simply by making public statements on political matters. The famous are more likely to be heeded. Success in one sphere, therefore, facilitates access to and success in another, irrespective of specific credentials.12

6So when celebrities are referred to here, a rather broad definition applies and includes anyone who is either deservedly or un-deservedly famous, including paid-up politicians.

The Celebrity is the Message

7Although, historically, political celebrity endorsement is nothing new: Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, endorsed Irish Home Rule, while Rudyard Kipling opposed it in the 1910s,13 in its modern incarnation, the practice of celebrity endorsement has mostly swept across from America, particularly from the field of advertising and marketing in which “celebrity endorsers can be an effective way to influence brand perceptions, elevate (…) brand”14 recognition and consequently lead to increased profit margins. If we then perceive of the voter as a consumer of sorts, who has to be convinced, enticed or lured into buying a product, in this case buying into a certain policy or political ideology, for instance, the ‘brand Scotland’ or the ‘brand Britain’, then the use of celebrities in the realm of political campaigning is not really surprising. Unlike in advertising and the marketing of commercial products, however, where celebrities are remunerated handsomely, they are prohibited from receiving payment for their endorsement of political candidates or campaigns15. Generally, celebrity political endorsement is, and this is crucial, not considered to be effective or of much consequence for those voters who are highly involved in politics and political issues; a high degree of political informedness, or what is called political salience, makes voters less susceptible to being influenced by endorsement.16 Psephologist John Curtice, for instance, points out that “[w]hen people know much about the issues, celebrity backing won’t make that much difference, other than creating awareness.”17

8In British politics, voluntary endorsement of a political cause by celebrities was first witnessed in the 1980s. The Red Wedge movement, a collective of musicians led by Paul Weller and Billy Bragg, attempted to engage young people in politics and in particular to get them to oust Margaret Thatcher in 1987. Commentators claimed that the campaign didn’t have much effect with regard to encouraging young voters to vote for Labour; voter turnout, however, was significantly higher than in previous years.18 In the 1990s, Tony Blair and New Labour attempted to appear more in touch with popular culture and by extension with their target voters by rubbing shoulders with celebrities and famous faces in the run-up to the 1997 general election, hoping that the attractiveness and glamour might rub off on them and their party, thus creating Cool Britannia. Blair, who was often criticised for his fondness of celebrities, later wrote in his memoirs that “to this day, I’m never sure of the effect the celebrity thing has. I don’t dismiss it, as some do.”19 He went on to say that “celebs can reinforce, even boost the message … [and] can add some glamour and excitement to what can often be a dreary business.”20 But Blair was also aware of the downside of celebrity endorsement:

What they cant do, of course, is substitute for the politics. In fact, if they try to, they become immediately counterproductive. If they begin lecturing the people as to why or how they should vote, its nearly always a disaster. The public feel they are overstepping the mark and put them and their political travellers in their place. They clearly dont determine the outcome, but properly used, they help.21

9When celebrity endorsement is helpful to a cause, it is often referred to as the Oprah effect. It alludes to the positive impact Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of a product or a politician has - or the advantageous effect an appearance on her show can have.22 We saw the power of this Midas touch in the American presidential election of 2008 when she and many other American stars and starlets successfully backed presidential candidate Barak Obama. But not all endorsement has to be beneficial to a cause. In Britain, the 2011 AV Referendum campaign to change the first-past-the-post parliamentary election system, failed to produce a majority for an alternative vote despite the political instrumentation of a vast array of celebrities mainly in favour of the change.23 In the lead-up to the general election of 2015, the phenomenon of an undesired effect of celebrity participation was coined, not-all-too-seriously, “the Katie Hopkins effect”24: the controversial English television presenter Katie Hopkins threatened to leave the country if Ed Miliband was to win the general election. Many people thought that this was now a very good reason to vote for Miliband, if it meant she would actually leave the country. In the indyref debate, Hopkins’ derogatory and belittling comments about Scotland and its people were in no way helpful to the Better Together cause either. Some even call political endorsement by the wrong type of celebrity a political kiss of death, as it can also backfire. But, since celebrity endorsement in politics is somewhat voluntary and the celebrity cannot be remunerated25, politicians, campaign managers and spin doctors have little influence on who exactly will back a campaign. This does not mean that they don’t still try to rally celebrities to their respective cause.

10At the launch of the Scottish referendum Yes-campaign,26 for instance, Hollywood celebrities like Brian Cox and Alan Cumming were invited to add some glamour to the occasion and a message from Sean Connery was read out.27 Celebrities increasingly have big fan-bases, audiences, or followers,28 with whom they can intimately communicate via all sorts of new social media.29 As a politician, surrounding oneself with people who are arguably more attractive, more trustworthy, easier to identify with and likable,30 can, especially with young voters, lead to them seeing those positive attributes rub off onto the politician, party or campaign in question.31

11This close association of the ‘high and mighty’ with ‘the rich and glamorous’ also has the side-effect of further dissolving the former clear-cut dichotomy of politician and celebrity: politicians are increasingly becoming celebritised and celebrities politicised. The attempt to instrumentalise celebrities doesn’t, however, always go the way it is intended. During the referendum debate, PM Cameron attempted to emulate Tony Blair’s approach of surrounding himself with popular celebrities, albeit with no great success. Upon being invited to a St Andrew’s Day reception by Cameron, Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges reacted by mischievously tweeting: “Got this [invitation] through the door today, my heart is saying ‘fuck that’ and my head is saying ‘Aye, fuck that’.”32 Alluding to the oft-quoted decision between head and heart – a choice between reason and emotion – Bridges here refuses to be associated with the Tory party, let alone be instrumentalised as yet another celebrity to champion Better Together’s cause. In this he echoes Stephen Fry’s stance on the matter. Having been approached by the (formerly) three big Westminster parties himself, Fry felt the need to write against this trend. In his blog entry ‘How I will vote…’, composed before the 2010 general election, in which he stated that it was “none of your business”, he admonished the electorate not to “… let anything I say influence you” and urged the voters to “vote with your heart, vote with your head, vote with your gut: your heart, your head, your gut – no one’s else.”33

Celebrity Endorsement in the Scottish Referendum

Risk of Commitment

12Of course, the degree of endorsement of the respective causes varied immensely in the referendum debate: celebrity endorsement ranged from a merely non-committal thumbs up and the occasional tweet to actively taking part in campaigning, leafleting on the streets, and giving passionate speeches at rallies. Many also published opinion pieces, essays and even monographs, and, of course, appeared on TV and the internet.

13Among the long list of illustrious writers against Scottish independence, including the likes of Martin Amis, John Burnside and Sebastian Faulks, the most notable example, and causing the most stir, was English-born, but Scottish-affiliated J.K. Rowling. Unlike the lottery winners, the Weirs, who substantially backed the Yes campaign, famous fantasy novelist Joanne K. Rowling not only displayed her commitment to the Unionist cause monetarily, but also attached a public explanation for her donation in the form of an appeal. Her endorsement of the Better Together campaign, which much resembled Gordon Brown’s nostalgic evocation of the heyday of welfare-state Britain, put forth in his My Scotland, Our Britain34, was met with immense criticism. Her attempt to pre-empt the criticism that she might be deemed “insufficiently Scottish”35 to be entitled to enter the debate and her comment that “when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for [her] taste”36, in particular, were met with accusations of not being well-enough informed about the non-ethnic form of nationalism peculiar to Scotland. Fellow celebrity Pat Kane, musician and Yes campaigner, for instance, led the charge in trying to deconstruct some of Rowling’s arguments.37 While he did this in a civil and polite way, other opponents vilified her and reduced the debate to an ad hominem (or ad feminam) mudslinging match. Displaying commitment to a political cause can therefore also be risky.

  • 38 Arsena, A., Silvera, D. H., Pandaleare, M., 2014, p. 1537.
  • 39 Wheeler, M., 2014, pp. 230-32.

14 From the comfortable position of well-established celebrities, this risk does not appear to be so great. But if a public persona is solely dependent on widespread popularity, it is a different matter, as, it is not only that endorsers can “influence brand perceptions [, but] traits associated with the brand [can also] influence perceptions of the endorser.”38 Tying oneself too closely to a product, cause or campaign can thus also reflect negatively on the endorser, especially when the product is not universally considered to be good or acceptable. In this context political celebrity endorsement differs greatly from charitable fundraising, public awareness-raising and philanthropy, which seems to be above criticism: endorsement of a political campaign is, after all, not the same as celebrity humanitarianism39 – a la Bono, Bob Geldorf or Angelina Jolie – against which it is rather difficult to argue in a society that endorses or even over-endorses political correctness.

15A political cause or policy, on the other hand, can be more readily attacked than humanitarian causes like feeding children in Africa, improving women’s rights or saving the rainforest. Interestingly, the Yes campaign’s grassroots-celebrities also tried to position themselves in a Bono-like fashion when they equated a Yes vote to fighting poverty and hunger, social-injustice and inequality, while constantly perpetuating the myth of Scotland being the more egalitarian society. Criticism of celebrity endorsement within the referendum debate revolved around contesting the endorser’s entitlement to participate on the grounds of not living in the country, not being registered to vote or not paying taxes in Britain (as was the case with Sean Connery, Allan Cumming and David Bowie), secondly, of not being well enough informed about the complexities of the debate or of getting the ‘facts’ wrong. Even the celebrity status in itself of the individuals concerned led to a wide disavowal of their entitlement to influence the debate. So, widespread meticulous media scrutiny, on-line as well as off-line, which picked up on any unfounded, unwarranted or unsubstantiated endorsement or ‘tuppence-worth’, may perhaps have counterbalanced or even destroyed any vote-influencing value celebrity endorsements may have had in the first place.

Reluctance to Commit

16The possible negative fallout for the celebrity, among other reasons, might be a further explanation for the reluctance to wholeheartedly commit to one side or the other, as was the case with actors James McAvoy and Peter Capaldi for instance. Long explanations on why one or the other celebrity endorsed either campaign were, naturally, often reduced to their easily-digestible core message, like ‘celebrity X.Y.Z supports independence or wants Scotland to remain in the Union’, to the extent that even ‘No-comment’ comments were considered newsworthy, as they were obviously alsoclick-bait’.

17Upon being asked about the referendum by the BBC, Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly, for instance, said, “I don’t want to influence anybody, so I shut up!”40 And, the in-itself content-free statement by English actor Helen Mirren that she had “absolutely nothing to say about the matter…”, equally lends itself to the assumption that many celebrity comments were, in fact, not offered voluntarily or out of a genuine sense of commitment; they merely surfaced owing to the respective interviewee’s status of well-knownness. It would appear that anyone remotely famous or in the public eye was asked to comment on the matter, coerced into taking sides or forced by journalists to hold an opinion on the referendum and to voice it publicly. As polling expert John Curtice puts it: “The principal impact of a celebrity endorsement is that media call up and ask about what the impact will be. It’s a good way of getting publicity, and drawing interest in your campaign, because the media will pick up on the comments.”41

18Celebrity status depends on constantly staying in the public eye, which in this case was interestingly also achieved by remaining non-committal. And, of course, the proverbial ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ still holds true, as Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray put it: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about."42 The Scottish tennis player Andy Murray, who only became British after having become successful (or so the joke goes), throughout most parts of the debate also opted out of committing himself to one side. His position shifted, however, from “I’m not allowed to vote, so my thoughts on it aren’t that relevant ….”43 in March 2014, to committing to the Yes side by tweeting on polling day: “Huge day for Scotland today! no campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. excited to see the outcome. lets do this!(sic.)”44With Andy Murray, issues of identity, which were perhaps deliberately sidelined and didn’t feature much in the official political discourse of the referendum debate,45 were certainly ascertainable. His endorsement was much sought after,46 as he personified the key-dichotomy of Scottishness and Britishness tacitly underlying the debate, and to some Yes supporters his success on the tennis court was symptomatic of a new-found (political) optimism to counter the long-held belief in Scotland’s inferiority and for some seemingly put to rest the ‘Scots’ crisis of confidence’, to borrow Carol Craig’s term. It would appear that the emotional case for or against Scottish independence, and along with it a case revolving around questions of identity, was mainly made outwith the regular political playing field.

Genuine Celebrity Commitment

19How then can commitment to a cause be measured? Actors Elaine C. Smith, Brian Cox and Allan Cumming were passionately involved and engaged in the Yes campaign, frequently appearing as guest-speakers at panel discussions, lectures and Yes rallies – all displaying a high level of political salience from the start. Other celebrities like Sean Connery or writer and artist Alasdair Gray, for instance, had been committed to an independent Scotland for decades. Other contemporary writers like Irvine Welsh, James Robertson and Alan Bissett contributed extensively to the debate both in their writings and in the media with novels, plays, interviews and poems on the subject of independence.

20For the Better Together campaign, English comedian Eddy Izzard, for example, who joined the then Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy on his Irn-Bru crate tour, was out on the streets, giving speeches and actively campaigning for months, trying to directly convince the public into staying united. Izzard performed at fundraising events for the Better Together campaign when the Pro-UK campaign eventually changed their tactics and also decided to instrumentalise celebrities as a reaction to the other side’s dynamic strategy. Even leading businessmen like Willy Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, without the glitz and glamour of show business, if they were perceived as being successful in their field and representing illustrious corporations, were invited to contribute their views on television and in the papers.47

21Those corporate celebrities often grouped together to write open letters making an economic case for or against independence. Leading academics also left their ivory towers to join in the public debate, sometimes becoming celebrities in the process, if they were not already. Of course one would expect the politicians involved to be actively engaged in the campaign for or against independence, but with the media coverage and the involvement of so many celebrities in the debate, politicians like Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling among many others who made their endorsements on a daily basis in the media were revered and vilified, and aggrandized in the same way as other media celebrities.

Token Celebrity Commitment

22However strong or long-standing, this level of commitment to either side stands in stark contrast to the gesture of merely adding a signature, as two hundred celebrities felt moved to do, to a letter urging the voters in Scotland to stay. Owing to its significant brevity, the letter is worth quoting in full here :

Dear voters of Scotland,
The decision on whether to leave our shared country is, of course, absolutely yours alone. Nevertheless, that decision will have a huge effect on all of us in the rest of the United Kingdom. We want to let you know how very much we value our bonds of citizenship with you, and to express our hope that you will vote to renew them. What unites us is much greater than what divides us.
s stay together

23Understandably, in this regard celebrity endorsement mirrored other areas of the debate in that the aspiring independence faction had to present its case for changing the status quo in a stronger and more detailed way and thus needed to be more prolific in its output than the incumbent position, so, the Pro-UK campaign felt less compelled to provide lengthy explanations. The Scottish government’s book-length White Paper of 2012, entitled Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland,49 which some observers have labelled a manifesto50, seemingly did not warrant the publication of a Pro-UK counterpart setting forth a Unionist case. David Bowie’s copiously-quoted statement at the Brit Awards, read out by Kate Moss, for instance, merely consisted of four words, “Scotland stay with us”51 and was even introduced by a by-the-way-ish “and”. (He was told “in the Scottish Twittersphere to go ‘back to Mars’”52). David Bowie’s plea was seen in Scotland as a further form of English condescension and patronising of Scotland.

24Such simplistic appeals were accused of showing ignorance of what the referendum was ‘really’ about: a sentiment that was nicely explored in Alan Bissett’s polemic video-poem “Vote Britain”53. For the Pro-UK campaign, sound bites were obviously considered sufficient to convince the majority of voters to reject independence. Whether some of those calls for togetherness were made out of a genuine sense of long-held conviction and commitment to the British state, or whether they were perhaps made mainly out of anxiety about a change in the status quo, and were therefore just knee-jerk reactions, cannot be ascertained conclusively.

Co-opted Celebrity Commitment

25 The effect a political endorsement may have does not necessarily depend on its complexity or on how elaborately it propagates a case, the level of well-knownness of the endorser and the message’s subsequent wide dissemination is as important. The substance of an endorsement is often sidelined by the style and glamour of the endorser. The media subservience to the celebrity cult in the pre-referendum debate led to an all-encompassing demand for celebrity views on the Scottish independence question and virtually nobody got off scot-free. Among the heads of state Obama said No,54 Chinas Premier Li Keqiang said No,55 the Queen more or less said No,56 and according to the Daily Mirror the Pope said “Nope”57. Whether those interventions, as they were termed, were supplied as favours to David Cameron, offered voluntarily, or media generated remains a question for posterity.

26 The media didn’t even shy away from resurrecting the dead, to ‘ask’ them how they would have voted. Illustrious celebrities of the past like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns were instrumentalised in the debate. Scotland’s two literary giants were made to battle it out on the pages of the tabloids and broadsheets alike. Alex Salmond mischievously commented on Scott, who was a dyed-in-the-tartan Tory: “I’d like to think he might have moved towards a ‘Yes’.”58 And both sides tried to claim that Burns was their man.

27 To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, even celebrity puppets and cartoon characters were wheeled out to give their tuppence-worth on independence. Miss Piggy from the Muppet Show was for Yes, Kermit the Frog was for No, and Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons, perhaps the most famous stereotypical Scotsman in America, came out in favour of independence, suggesting himself for the role of new leader of the new state. One might say that within the referendum mega-spectacle, celebrity endorsement was sometimes brought down to the level of farce. In Scotland, as a reaction to the perceived scaremongering of the Better Together campaign, the Yes campaign engendered its very own celebrity cartoon character in the form of a wily dog called Duggy Dug, “a scruffy yet likeable old Scottish terrier whose eyesight isn’t the best - but who uses his nose to sniff out fact from fiction as he wanders through some of the more controversial areas of the debate, wisecracking along the way.”59 The politically savvy canine, voiced by Scottish Hollywood actor Brian Cox, hosted his own website and regularly posted video clips showing up the latest propaganda ploys, adding a much appreciated element of “sarcasm and facetiousness”60 to the discourse. The dog and his celebrity voice represented another celebrity endorsement, humorously debunking a lot of the other side’s assertions and in turn functioning as a propaganda tool itself.

The Effect of Celebrity Endorsement on the Referendum

28Nevertheless, while there is no doubt that celebrity endorsement played a major role in the indyref debate, whether it influenced the outcome one way or the other is a matter of speculation. In the referendum, for the first time in British politics, 16 and 17 year-olds were allowed to cast their vote. As celebrity endorsement is seen to be particularly effective with young people, not least because of their generally assumed low political salience, the question as to whether they may have been swayed by celebrity endorsement is a valid one.

29The degree of active campaign involvement of that particular age group, as well as their immediate elders, suggests though that that age group was as unlikely to be swayed into taking either side as their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. In the comments section of a Guardian article, discussing a Pro-UK endorsement by famous Scottish singer Sharleen Spiteri, commenter Joe 545 put it succinctly: “Just because someone has a good set of vocal cords doesn’t mean they have anything valuable to say. And that’s for both sides!”61

  • 62 Veer, E., Becirovic, I., Martin, B., 2010, p. 444.

30A certain level of identification with high-profile personalities might have had some effect. However, judging from the high level of engagement and commitment among the younger age group, be it in mock referenda in schools and universities, in the grassroots campaigns or in social media, it seems that this age group was only marginally susceptible to being swayed by celebrity endorsement. A high level of political informedness or salience seems to immunise against celebrity influence. A study by Veer, Becirovic and Martin has shown that “…if the voter is engaged with politics and is actively thinking of politics and political issues the effect of the celebrity endorsement is negated.”62 Celebrity endorsement seems mainly to work when the celebrity is preaching to the converted.

  • 63 O’Regan, V.R., 2014, p. 479.

31Moreover, findings by O’Regan suggest that there are factors other than celebrity opinions that influence young voters to a greater extent: “Young adults are less likely to trust the celebrity endorsement of a candidate or issue, and are more likely to trust the endorsement of someone they know, such as their family or friends, or someone active in politics, such as a politician or interest group.”63 In Scotland, although there was a long tradition of strong family and class party affiliation, viz: ‘my father and my grandfather were Labour, and so am I.’, these traditional voting patterns were generally eroded by the non-party political division of the debate, and discussion of contemporary issues was seemingly more likely to influence young adults than old party loyalties.

32There were many reports of families themselves being divided into Yes or No camps in the pre-referendum debate. “In 2014, 71% of young people under 30 in Scotland, voted yes for independence, 73% of old people, over 55, voted no.”64 Celebrity endorsement is perhaps most effective in drawing attention to or raising awareness of a cause. And for the Scottish referendum, with nearly 85%, there was an unprecedentedly high voter turnout which seems to support the notion that celebrity participation galvanised the disaffected or previously marginalised members of society into going to the polls, especially in the case of the “missing million”,65 as Willie Sullivan called them, i.e. the enfranchised voters who in the past rarely made use of their right to vote. According to the pre-referendum opinion polls, there were large numbers of potential voters who were still undecided up until the very last minute and this made for a tit for tat race between the two opposing factions to win over these crucial voters.

33As more and more celebrities were brought in by the one side, more and more were wheeled out by the other side, counteracting and possibly neutralising their effect. When evaluating the raising of awareness ensuing from celebrity endorsement, it must be remembered that ever since the first referendum on devolution in 1979, the issue of independence had never entirely left the stage and a continuous disaffection with and resentment of consecutive governments’ policies on Scotland, particularly in the Thatcher years, on the one side, already constituted fertile ground for the call for ever more independence, resulting in the granting of the Scottish Parliament in 1997 and the landslide victory of the SNP in 2007. On the other side, although initially not so widespread, the recognition of the threat of an actual break-up of Britain had also gradually trickled down and influenced the mindsets of those who wanted to keep Britain together. The ground was already prepared and two years of heated and omnipresent referendum campaigning concentrated and heightened the sentiments and opinions that were already current. Celebrity endorsement, although ubiquitous, glittering and glamorous, arguably was thus not pivotal to the level of awareness of the importance of the referendum.


34The celebrities mentioned in this paper make up only a small but representative selection of all those participating to a greater or lesser extent. As has been shown, in this war of propaganda, celebrities were used as a vehicle by the politicians and the media to promote agreement or dissension, either willingly committing from the start, after being persuaded or possibly coerced under duress, and even paradoxically contributing by being non-committal. But, this was a political campaign and of course the politicians were in the vanguard of the debate.

35Under the circumstances it is hard to give celebrity endorsement the sole credit for raising awareness of the independence issue and it is even harder to credit it with influencing the end result at all. If anything, the referendum has on a large scale galvanised people from all walks of life into critically assessing the flood of information they were provided with, and that included information and endorsement provided by celebrities.

36What was more important for the debate was not the celebrity endorsement, but the reactions it evoked in the public sphere, fuelling the fire of the campaign, perpetuating the media hype and leading to a further entrenchment of attitudes and loyalties on both sides. Ever since 2012, the referendum issue increasingly dominated life in Scotland. Celebrity endorsement added an element of glamour to the whole campaign, but was only part of a passionate discourse that took place in the parliaments, in the media, in the universities, within the family and in the pubs. People understood that this was not a decision affecting only the next few years as in a general election, but a momentous and for the foreseeable future irreversible decision that could irrevocably change their lives.

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1 <> accessed 21 September 2014.

2 <> accessed 20 May 2015.

3 cf. Debord, G., (1967) 1994.

4 cf. Kellner, D., 2003, pp. 93-125.

5 cf. Postman, N., (1985) 2006.

6 <> accessed 8 August 2015.

7 <> accessed 20 May 2015.

8 Boorstin, D. J. 1979, p. 25.

9 ibid.

10 <> accessed 15 August 2015.

11 <> accessed 16 August 2015.

12 Moores, P. M. 1991, p. 131.

13 <> accessed 5 August 2015.

14 Arsena, A., Silvera, D. H., Pandaleare, M., 2014. p. 1537.

15 OPSI, Broadcasting Act (1990), cited in: Veer, E., Becirovic, I., Martin, B., 2010, p. 437.

16 Veer, E., Becirovic, I., Martin, B., 2010, pp. 440-1.

17 <> accessed 4 August 2015.

18 <> accessed 8 August 2015.

19 Blair, T., 2010, p. 333.

20 Ibid.

21 <> accessed 24 July 2015.

22 <> accessed 27 July 2015.

23 <> accessed 25 August 2015.

24 <> accessed 5 May 2015.

25 OPSI, Broadcasting Act (1990), cited in: Veer, E., Becirovic, I., Martin, B., 2010, p. 437.

26 Interestingly, the Better Together campaign launch was deliberately low key, using every-day voters instead of celebrities to endorse their cause. They later changed their tactics. cf.<> accessed 25 April 2015.

27 <> accessed 10 April 2015.

28 Russell Brand’s well over 10 million Twitter followers might have played a part in Ed Miliband’s decision to agree to do an interview with him.

29 Wheeler, M., 2014, pp. 225-29.

30 Veer, E., Becirovic, I., Martin, B., 2010, p. 443.

31 cf. Jackson, D. J., Darrow, T. I. A., 2008, pp. 67-83.

32 <> accessed 12 April 2015.

33 <> accessed 30 March 2015.

34 cf. Brown, G., 2014.

35 <> accessed 20 August 2015.

36 Ibid.

37 <> accessed 17 October 2014.

38 Arsena, A., Silvera, D. H., Pandaleare, M., 2014, p. 1537.

39 Wheeler, M., 2014, pp. 230-32.

40 <> accessed 16 March 2015.

41 <> accessed 14 March 2015.

42 Wilde, O., (1888-1891) 1952. p. 24.

43 <> accessed 16 March 2015.

44 <> accessed 9 March 2015.

45 The conspicuous absence of explicit reference to issues of identity in the official political discourse during the referendum debate is a continuation of a phenomenon Murray Stewart Leith and Daniel P.J. Soule already described in 2011 as follows: “There are few expressions or direct policy statements expressing a distinct sense of either Scottishness or Britishness. Uses of explicit identity-related statements, even among the most openly Nationalist and unionist of parties, are conspicuous by their absence, even while policies supporting independence or the continuation of the Union are evident.” Leith, S. M., Soule, D.P.J., 2011, pp. 60-1.

46 <> accessed 25 March 2015.

47 <> accessed 23 August 2015.

48 <> accessed 26 August 2015.

49 <> accessed 20 August 2015.

50 <> accessed 23 July 2015.

51 <> accessed 30 September 2014.

52 <> accessed 23 August 2015.

53 <> accessed 25 November 2014.

54 <> accessed 13 March 2015.

55 <> accessed 23 August 2015.

56 <> accessed 19 September 2014.

57 <> accessed 23 August 2015.

58 <> accessed 15 April 2015.

59 <> accessed 6 August 2015.

60 Ibid.

61 <> accessed 17 August 2015.

62 Veer, E., Becirovic, I., Martin, B., 2010, p. 444.

63 O’Regan, V.R., 2014, p. 479.

64 <> accessed 10 August 2015.

65 cf. Sullivan, W., 2014.

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Robert Wirth, « Committed Tuppence-worth : When Celebrities Dabble in Scottish Politics »Observatoire de la société britannique, 18 | 2016, 103-127.

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Robert Wirth, « Committed Tuppence-worth : When Celebrities Dabble in Scottish Politics »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 18 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2016, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert Wirth

Research assistant and lecturer à l’Université de Paderborn

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