IN the week when Scotland’s capital was revealed as the third sweariest city in the UK the independent candidate for Edinburgh Central is making the case for a recount. 

Being a persistent Glaswegian whose city sits proudly at the top of that table, I feel compelled to assert its credentials and see off the upstart. And so our jaggy conversation becomes profanity chess where the purpose is to bury your opponent under a pile of expletive compounds. 

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I meet Bonnie Prince Bob near Broughton Street, the boulevard which ferries New Town residents to their workplaces in Edinburgh’s retail and business enclave. His campaign hub is (literally) an office broom cupboard converted into the studio where he produces music and makes digital art.

From this place he also finesses a series of startling campaign videos which have set fire to a seat previously viewed exclusively as a contest of entitlement between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives. 

Later, I meet the chief target of Bob’s campaign, Angus Robertson, former leader of the SNP’s Westminster group and the eloquent grandee who sells independence to Scotland’s managerial classes. Robertson, who speaks fluent German, has just completed a history of early 20th-century Vienna. Bonnie Prince Bob is putting the finishes touches to a Jamaican reggae video. 

‘Makes no difference’

THE main purpose of Bob’s campaign is to oppose Robertson and the SNP, and stop them “thinking they can just *****n waltz into my *****n city and annexe it as part of a *****n political property portfolio”. 

“But what if all you do is split the *****n nationalist vote and help the Tories,” I ask him. “Makes no *****n difference to me,” he says. “It would be just one *****n Tory replacing another, eh?”

He speaks in the sort of working-class dialect that polite Edinburgh would rather you didn’t hear. It careers along upwards and downwards, from side to side and each declaration is a challenge. “There’s huge swathes of folk in the Edinburgh schemes who’ve never visited the castle, eh?”

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“A day-trip into the city centre for a family from Wester Hailes would take up their entire food shop, eh?”

“The SNP have virtually nationalised Scotland’s artistic community, eh? There’s no radical comedy because people know their wages are at the whim of an arm of government.”

It’s the howl of a community first aired beyond its streets in the pages of Trainspotting, the Irvine Welsh novel which introduced us to Edinburgh’s hidden civilization, a twilight zone barely glimpsed and ushered away so as not to startle the festival crowds as they attended corporate television comedy in sponsored tents. 

Residents living near the city centre knew what lockdown was like years before coronavirus. They had woken one Hogmanay to find barriers surrounding their streets for the purposes of protecting the profits of its winter festival. 

To Bob and other local campaigners, Edinburgh now exists merely to compete with the world’s other manicured cities for the spending power of the global super-rich in their search for new “experiences”. Its city centre has been hollowed out to give them space to indulge themselves free from having to actually interact with the people who live beyond the castle.   

Bob is what Labour candidates in Scottish elections might once have looked like. A self-taught local with a desire to speak for those lately reviled by Scotland’s political classes, unashamedly Socialist, republican and radical. And, in his case, pro-independence, but not at any price. 

“Look, if I get elected I’ll only serve for one term. I’m not in this to make a career. I want to spend the next five years giving a voice to the people who are excluded from Holyrood and who get gas-lit by those who claim to represent them with their performative identity politics and hate-crime legislation. 

Like others I was captured by the SNP’s vision for an independent Scotland that rejected the corrupt capitalism of Tory England. But in the last seven years the Scottish Government, in fact the entire Scottish political class has adopted, by stealth, the neoliberalism that underpins Westminster politics.

“It’s all there but they disguise it better. 

“In all of it there’s an absolute denial of the class-based politics that’s required to improve the lives of those communities who were struggling before Holyrood was established.

“Instead, our Parliament has become prey to high-end lobbying firms who get invited in to influence policy and whose clients get hired as economic advisers to the Government. Yet, they want us to believe it still represents working people by handing out a few wee presents from time to time to cover the fact that it’s done nothing for them.”

Irritated Angus

ANGUS Robertson operates from Edinburgh’s SNP club a few blocks away near Queen Street, opposite the National Portrait Gallery. He’s a warm and affable man who refuses to be anything other than polite about Bob and his other opponents in this contest. He is the embodiment of the civic nationalism his party espouses to avoid scaring the horses. He is moved to irritation only when refuting Bob’s accusation that he’s a carpet-bagger with no viable connection to the city. 

 “I attended both primary and secondary schools here. I had my first job here. Are we reduced to saying you can only be from here if you have lived your entire life in Edinburgh?” 

Here, I must declare a connection. It was while listening to Robertson address a fringe meeting in 2012 that I was first persuaded by the case for independence. Robertson normalised it. He replaced “why” with “why not?” He’s easy to like. 

“If I was being generous I’d say that the SNP’s moves towards a second referendum are proceeding at a glacial pace,” I tell him. “Some of us think you’ve all grown comfortable with endless devolved power.”

He’s having none of it. “The pandemic has changed everything,” he replies. “It has profoundly affected the timetables of our personal lives as well as political timeframes. We’re still committed to making a referendum happen during the lifetime of the next Parliament.”

The Cherry factor

THE first step towards a second referendum is securing an overall Yes majority on May 6. For this to happen the SNP needs seats like Edinburgh Central, held only once by them in a blue-coloured generation. 

There’s another issue, barely acknowledged by Robertson, which may yet be more critical than how the Tories perform or how many supporters Bonnie Prince Bob can chivvy from the constituency’s working-class neighbourhoods. This is the Joanna Cherry factor.

The popular Westminster MP for neighbouring Edinburgh South had originally planned to compete with Robertson for the seat before the party intervened to make it more difficult for Westminster MPs to switch to Holyrood. Her supporters – and she has many – regarded this as a stitch-up. Robertson’s fate may come down to depend on how resentful they remain on May 6. 

Bonnie Prince Bob quietly nurses his own ambitions. “It’s my job over the next two weeks to reach the working-class areas of this seat and convince them that I’ll be there purely to represent them and their concerns, no-one else’s.” *****n Holyrood’s Oath of Allegiance may yet be declared earthily in a Trainspotting dialect.