THE intervention in the debate over Scottish independence by David Beckham demonstrates how, even with mere days to go before Thursday’s referendum, it retains the capacity to stupefy. As one of the highest profile celebrities in the world, let alone Britain, the former Manchester United and England footballer’s endorsement for the No camp provides its arguments with extraordinary exposure ahead of Thursday’s vote. His word and smile is coveted by marketeers the world who reward him handsomely for his advocacy; to have him on side has provided a shot in the arm for Better Together in the concluding days of the campaign. “He’s one of the highest profile figures in Britain if not the world, so it’s a big boost,” a source in the Better Together campaign told me last night. “But as well as profile he has the likeability factor. He’s not a political expert but people like him and admire him and that’s important.”
Beckham’s open letter to Scottish voters hits all the notes that have helped make him an icon and, more importantly, an influential brand. It is polite, succinct and emotional, harking back to the golden summer of London 2012 when Scots formed part of an extraordinarily successful sporting alliance. It is, he stresses, “not my intention to tell you what to do.” Whereas some celebrities to declare for one side of the other have been lambasted for their views on specific political issues in #indyref, Beckham steers clear of them all for the heart of sleeve approach that defined his playing career.
The surprise element cannot be underestimated, not least because Beckham has rarely expressed an interest in Scottish civic life and how its shifting tectonic plates are impacting on the rest of the UK. In fact, apart from his support for the Football Association in trying to land major football tournaments for England, he has made plain a desire to shy away from political discussion. In an interview with Esquire last year, he said he does not have political views and, at the time, did not vote because he lived outside the country. Asked if he would were he resident in the UK, he said he would rather not talk about politics.
Why then, has Beckham chosen now to speak up for the No campaign? His role in the London Olympics, where he played an integral role in the campaign to bring the Games to these shores, later acting as an Olympic ambassador, demonstrates how his pride and passion for Britain is beyond doubt. His emotional ties with Scotland are less evident save for the games he played against Scottish teams while wearing the colours of Manchester United.
Recently, however, Beckham has taken a keener interest in Scotland. He has been in the country on at least two occasions this year. In January, he was seen in Menstrie, Clackmannanshire, and Leven in Fife. Earlier this month, meanwhile, he spent time in he Glen Affric Estate in Invernessshire. Unusual destinations, perhaps, for a multimillionaire with an international property portfolio, but there is a common thread. Both visits coincided with Beckham’s role as a brand ambassador for Diageo, the Scotch whisky giant, touring production plants and filming advertisements. Together with celebrity agent, Simon Fuller, Beckham is helping develop the strategy and positioning of a new product, Haig Club, a single grain Scotch.
While Beckham has until recently remained quiet on the issue of Scottish independence, Diageo – which controls 40% of Scotch whisky production – has not. In May, its chief executive, Ivan Menezes, emphasised the importance of the company remaining within the EU and to maintain free trade agreements. His comments were neither overtly pro nor anti independence, but made clear there were concerns in the event of a Yes vote. “What we will fight for is keeping our industry competitive and thriving, and we are very clear on what that requires,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Although Better Together were aware that Beckham was to come out in support for No late last night, he did so not through the auspices of the official campaign, but Let’s Stay Together, a campaign group registered with the Electoral Commission as a participant in the referendum and launched by two senior figures in the advertising world: Andrew McGuinness, the founder of BMB and Seven Dials, and Mary Teresa Rainey, the founder of RKCR and chair of TH_NK.
Two of those firms have previously done work with Diageo, a fact that is unlikely to have come to the attention of David Beckham. Understandably, he may not care. His position on the independence debate appears to be one borne out of a self-assuredness and delight in his national identity as a Briton. It is an authentic and emotional stance shared by a great many supporters of the No cause, but even so, it would be guileless to presume it is the only factor at play in his thunderbolt involvement in the increasingly surreal independence debate.