Brave… Strolling through the centre of Edinburgh last weekend, I bumped right into a newspaper headline. It was on the front page of the Scottish Sun on Sunday: “Braveheart won it for Nats.” And underneath: “Star says movie helped spark SNP landslide.” The star in question is, of course, Mel Gibson, who is bigging up his film as it approaches its twentieth anniversary. But he wasn’t the only person to speak to the paper. Alex Salmond chipped in with the observation that “[Braveheart] sparked discussion and debate about our nation’s future.”
…or foolhardy? The Sun story claims that Gibson “has previously shied away from talking about Scottish politics,” but that’s not quite true. I looked into this in preparation for a Times column a few years ago. He provided this wonderful quote for an interview with an Australian newspaper in 2009: “[Scotland] received some kind of partial autonomy and now I think they got the whole banana, right? [Braveheart] certainly started the ball rolling.”
Some numbers to the contrary. The graph at the top of this post shows public attitudes towards Scottish independence and devolution in the twenty years around Braveheart’s release, as well as the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland across five general elections. At first glance, it might seem to support Gibson’s lofty assertions: there’s a spike in support for both independence and devolution after the film entered cinemas in September 1995. But a second glance will complicate the picture. The peak actually comes around Scotland’s devolution referendum in 1997, and then it declines quite sharply. Support for independence hovered around the 30 per cent mark in the ten years after Braveheart, just as it did in the ten years before.
More numbers to the contrary. And if that’s not enough for you, there’s a handy graph in this article from the summer 1997 edition of Scottish Affairs. Sadly, it’s buried behind a paywall, so you’ll have to take my word for what it shows – which is a more magnified view of public attitudes in 1995 and 1996 than this post’s graph can manage. Turns out that support for independence had actually fallen six months after Braveheart’s release, and was more or less flat a further six months later. And so, the spike in 1997 was likelier caused by what was happening in 1997.
Pop politics? Before I conclude, a health warning: this post has used that most disreputable of sources – opinion polls. But it still serves to illustrate a point. The links between pop culture and politics are something that I take brow-furrowingly seriously, and yet it’s hard to identify many times when the former has had a direct and unequivocal effect on the latter. The broadcast of Cathy Come Home in 1966 may have been one of them. The release of Braveheart probably wasn’t.