When Blair Jenkins was asked to appear at the launch of the Yes Scotland independence campaign in May, not even John Swinney or Mike Russell, finance and education secretaries respectively, knew about it, or his pro-independence views, till they saw him on stage.
The sight of the former BBC Scotland and STV news chief at the podium was the media world’s equivalent of Rangers signing Mo Johnston. Was this the same Jenkins whose mantra during a 30-year career in journalism had been impartiality, impartiality, impartiality?
“It was one of the most surreal and strange things I’d ever done,” says Jenkins, 55, of his Edinburgh Cineworld appearance. “I’d never expressed a political view on anything publicly, so walking on to the stage at that cinema to declare in two minutes why you were going to support this, I was well out of my comfort zone.”
Today, Jenkins’s comfort zone remains firmly in the rear view mirror. As chief executive of Yes Scotland, it’s a hard road ahead from here till referendum day in 2014. And with Alex Salmond, SNP leader and First Minister, as a backseat driver, too.
He says the two have a good relationship, despite past tussles. “I’ve probably fallen out with him over the years more than any other politician, not for any bad reason, for perfectly valid reasons. I was running newsrooms and he was the leader of a political party. You fall out with them all over a period of time.”
Once he had left the BBC and had become chair of the industry-examining Scottish Broadcasting Commission, he found Alex Salmond to be as good as his word when it came to upholding the inquiry’s independence. That was vital when it came to considering the offer to lead Yes Scotland. It wasn’t the only factor, though. As emerges later, this is not the first time Jenkins has left his comfort zone.
He is married to Carol Sinclair, a director of a digital media training body, and has three daughters from his first marriage, all in their 20s. One is a teacher in Nottingham, one is in television production and the youngest is in Australia on a work and travel visa.
Now living on Glasgow’s south side, Jenkins was born in Elgin in 1957. His dad was a meat grader while his mother looked after their three sons. She went back to work as a secretary when her husband became ill. They were “just regular people”, living on a council estate, money tight, but it was a “good, solid family”. His education was of the same quality, enabling him to sit his Highers early and get a job in journalism at 16.
Fitba’ crazy but sane enough to know he wasn’t good enough to be a professional, Jenkins thought the next best thing would be to get paid for writing about matches. He never did get to write about sport, but for the next three years he was a reporter for Aberdeen’s Evening Express, winning young journalist of the year at the Scottish Press Awards.
Believing he needed more of a hinterland he went to Edinburgh University to study English, then applied to the BBC’s news trainee scheme. One of six to be selected from 1500 applicants, he was the only non-Oxbridge one and the only Scot.
He can still recall the excitement of entering Broadcasting House in London for the first time. It felt like the hub of the universe, he says. “I’ve had my differences with the BBC over the years but I never lose sight of the fact it’s a marvellous institution.”
As “differences” go, Jenkins had a doozy in 2006 when he was head of journalism in Scotland. Told to make savings of 25% he spent six months trying to persuade London to change its mind. When that didn’t happen he resigned.
“To some extent you don’t want to waste a decision like that.” From that point on, he resolved, anything he did would be “important and interesting”. It would matter.
After a few more life turns, including a professorship in journalism at Strathclyde and the award of an OBE in 2010, he has ended up at Yes Scotland. Affable, cultured, smart, they are lucky to have him.
But is he lucky to have them? It’s a question that deserves to be asked as this previously non-political animal enters the independence debate. It’s a jungle in there, a place where the Salmonds and the Darlings roam. Is he ready?
His first foray didn’t go well. The Sunday Herald described his post-launch press encounter as a “mauling”. The media wanted details about a post-independence Scotland, he said the day was about winning hearts and minds. “There will be lots of detail,” he tells me in Glasgow. “People need answers to all the questions.”
OK, so should an independent Scotland be in or out of Nato? An answer emerges, but it does so with the speed of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly.
“My personal view, on balance, I’m open to the argument I should say, I don’t have a very strong view on it, but on balance I think it’s probably better to stay within Nato, but what I am very clear about is that’s not a decision for 2014.”
Asking about sterling provides a similar caterpillar-to-butterfly response. Once again he says it’s not a decision for 2014. This is where I have a problem, I say. You are presenting Yes Scotland as a single issue campaign, a simple matter of yes or no, yet surely it is a complex decision dependent on an array of factors.
We waltz the matter round and round, with Jenkins arguing that in 2014 people will say yes or no to the idea that the best people to take decisions about the future of Scotland are the people of Scotland. After that principle has been established, it is up to them which party to vote for according to each manifesto.
Jenkins has said Yes Scotland will campaign for independence only. But if Mr Salmond opts for a second question on the ballot, giving voters the option of more powers short of independence, will Jenkins resign?
“No, absolutely not, why would I do that?” The matter is for the Scottish Government and Westminster to resolve, he says. “At no point will Yes Scotland be morphing into Yes for Devo Plus or Yes for Devo Max.”
A recent poll, by YouGov/Fabian Society, put support for independence at 30%, with 54% opposed (up nine from a previous poll).
Jenkins has a job on his hands, but he is up for it. One pressing task is bringing Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Greens co-convener, back on board. Harvie was at the launch but then distanced his party, saying: “We can’t just be there to wave the flag for someone else’s campaign.”
By that he meant the SNP. The money to cover the launch period, including the event in the cinema, came from the bequest by the late Makar, Edwin Morgan, and the donation from Euro Lottery winners Chris and Colin Weir, all SNP supporters.
Jenkins wants the campaign to be self-financing, with donations from individual supporters “as quickly as possible”. For the moment, I say, many will suspect there’s only one person calling the shots in Yes Scotland and his initials are AS.
“Absolutely not. The First Minister is very clear that Yes Scotland has its own mission and its own identity. I don’t report to Alex Salmond, that’s not the arrangement at all ... We will be equally welcoming and equally supportive of anyone from whichever political party or no political party they emerge.”
He has advertised for four executives, a Glasgow office will open soon, and the campaign is still aiming for one million signatures on the Yes Scotland declaration. The job adverts say “tens of thousands” have signed so far.
For all that he appreciates nuance, Jenkins has a simple code in life. “You do the right things for the right reasons. If you do that things have a way of working out.” He left the BBC on a point of principle and it is principle that has made him take the job at Yes Scotland.
“This is the only issue and this is the only campaign for me. This is the only time I’ll be doing this. I wouldn’t have got involved had it been anything else. It’s just one of those times and one of those issues where I think everybody in the end is going to have to stand up and be counted.”