The delight was clear on Alex Salmond’s face as he addressed his audience in Portlethan Parish Church. “This is only the second time in history the UK Cabinet has come to the north of Scotland,” he said, with a grin, waving over his shoulder in the general direction of the Shell headquarters in Aberdeen where David Cameron was, just at that moment, sitting down to a meeting with his fellow UK ministers.
“The first time was in 1921 when Lloyd George summoned his ministers – many of whom were in Highland estates – to meet him in Inverness in the summer holidays,” Mr Salmond said.
The First Minister then added, after a pause: “They signed the Treaty of Irish Independence at that meeting.”
Some nationalists in the audience applauded, others laughed along – but nobody missed the significance of the message. The linking of Mr Cameron and Highland Estates was clear but the reference to the independence of Ireland was also very deliberate, as was the comparison between the two cabinets.
Monday’s public meeting of the Scottish Cabinet at Portlethan, just outside Aberdeen, was the 12th time it had met outside Edinburgh since 2007 and, on each occasion, Mr Salmond has answered locals’ questions.
When Mr Cameron brought his Cabinet to Aberdeen, he met oil industry leaders – but met virtually no voters, allowing Mr Salmond to crow afterwards: “This jetting in and jetting out again, I think it’s counter-productive. I thought David Cameron was just not confident enough to debate against me – it turns out he is not confident enough to debate with the people either.”
If the aim of Mr Cameron’s visit was to seize the momentum over the referendum, there was very little evidence that he had succeeded. Indeed, by coming to Mr Salmond’s nationalist heartland in the North-east of Scotland – an area he has represented for more than 20 years – the Prime Minister simply appeared to be playing into the First Minister’s hands.
Robert Calvert, a retired communications worker who lives in Portlethan, is a committed No voter but even he was dismissive of Mr Cameron. “Cabinet? It’s a talking shop. It’s nothing more than that and it will have no effect on anybody,” he told The Independent.
However, he was equally blunt about the “coincidence” of the Scottish Cabinet being just seven miles away holding a meeting of its own. “They are just saying ‘I am here, you are there on the other side of the fence.’ I am not impressed by any of it,” he said.
The Scottish First Minister would at least have appreciated the words of defiant “Yes” voter Malcolm Bremner, a warehouseman employed by one of the drilling companies in the area, however. “I think it’s astonishing that the UK Cabinet has come here but no one knows where they are. At least the Scottish Cabinet are meeting people,” the Aberdonian said.
If the Prime Minister expected to come to Scotland and win over the locals simply by dispatching his ministers to various events in the area then flying out again, he seemed to have underestimated the Scottish Government’s ability to create an impression of its own. Before he went into the church, Mr Salmond laid a wreath at the war memorial to commemorate the fallen of the First World War.
The wreath was not made of poppies, though – it was deliberately and carefully made up of Scottish thistles and the white rose of Scotland, a symbol both of peace and, now, of Scottish nationalism. It was a little detail, but revealed a lot about the time and effort that had gone into this particular meeting of the Scottish Cabinet.
Mr Salmond was determined to win every part of this confrontation with Mr Cameron on Monday and, at least as far as the people of Portlethan were concerned, he seems to have succeeded.