Throughout the history of Independence-seeking nations, one almost always find those of a cultural bent blazing the trail. Be it in art, literature, performance, poetry, or song, there are always men and women who separate from the groupthink and propel their ideological contributions into sparking the debate.
As our referendum juggernaut shudders along a single track road with multiple passing places towards Scottish independence, the average punter, who will determine this country’s future, is going to be hard pushed to name the creative folk who are framing the Independence debate.
Sure, we know a handful of performers, a couple of thespians, a warbler or two and a couple of shouty poets and novelists who popped into the spotlight at the Cineworld declaration. Their endorsements are welcome, but where are the deep, meaningful words, actions and personal sacrifices that can engender a spirit of change in the people? Whither those essayists, philosophers, playwrights and grassroots cultural campaigners who are willing to put their collective mouths where their creative Scotland ‘investment’ award rests and tell it like it really is? Where are the young creative Scots who can articulate the benefits of independence; capture the populist imagination of our young voters and give constitutional change a fighting chance against a creaking privileged establishment desperate to retain the status quo of our sullied and corrupt Union?
I recently watched a live online debate about Creative Scotland and their business-like approach to arts management and funding on the Guardian’s live-stream. Those ‘experts’ invited to participate were lovely, cultured types who were devoted to their own particular sphere of the arts and really exemplified the best spirit of making art over balancing budgets. Primarily, the debate centred around the heady world of funding and the tangible fear that Creative Scotland might transform itself from a traditional funding body into a government sanctioned curatorial quango, something nobody, and I mean nobody, wants. I was struck, however, by a conversation that took place when an interloper gate-crashed the funding moan-a-thon and posed this question:
“I’m interested as to just how much engagement our artists are having with the referendum. I say this because traditionally it is those in the creative sector who are at the forefront of societal change, particularly with regards to something as pivotal as Independence. Yet in Scotland, our artistic community, until very recently, has been particularly meek about upsetting the apple cart, they’ve been fairly hushed in expressing an opinion. Why?”
This elicited two responses, the first:
“Might it be because they are so bright they realise independence is a really bad idea?!”
“I agree. It would be great to have an open discussion about what the effects would be of a referendum. It would generate trust and help with the uncertainty that people are feeling. We need to be able to plan in order to build a confident ‘creative’ sector into the future.”
The first negative response could be taken as tongue in cheek, but the contributor – a Yorkshireman living and running a great and highly cultured festival in the Borders – later made the comparison to Yorkshire Independence, thus belittling the hopes and aspirations of a nation to that of an English county. His comment was emblematic of unthinking unionism, instantly dismissive, suggesting that creative types in Scotland are simply too clever to engage with Independence and all of its terribly disruptive ramifications.
The second comment was much more constructive, it recognised that change was afoot and part of that process is discussion about what a valid cultural landscape will look like in an Independent Scotland. There was an opportunity to get the debate going, but all we had were two comments from our esteemed art world and back to business as usual, carping for and about Scotland.
Although we’re a totie wee place with a huge regard for ourselves and our long gone heroes, Scotland is unfortunately unique in that we surrendered our Independence far too cheaply, for aristocratic privilege and a chance to get a foot through the door of English mercantilism. Most other Independence struggles have been at the point of a bullet and not the ballot. Other people have shed blood for the right to self-determination, while Scotland was merely subsumed tamely at the hands of our larger and more dominant neighbour. Despite the revolutionary fervour that grabbed the imagination of the early decades of the last century, none of the political class took to the barricades in the name of Independence. Those who came closest to oiling up the old carbines rightly believed in the immediacy of tackling poverty, infant mortality, illiteracy and unemployment before making Independence their priority. They believed in Independence or even the Devo-not-so-Max of the day, ‘Home Rule’, but the priorities of class war took precedence. Maxton, McLean, Bontine-Graham, Hardie, Muirhead and Johnston all Scots true, determined to see a better future for their own folk, but were simply weighed down in a class conflict that continues to this day and doesn’t look like ending any time soon.
It was instead the creative Scots who grabbed the complacent and educated by the lapel, dragged them screaming from Scotland’s subservient place as the comedic Kailyard of North Britain and threw fresh interpretations of the many tongued Scotland straight into their faces and down their lugs. This ‘Scottish Renaissance’ as described by Occitan linguist, poet and scholar Denis Saurat, struck a chord and propelled a legion of cultured Scots to the fore of the debate.
It was the poets, writers, playwrights, musicians, folklorists, novelists, translators, composers, essayists, sculptors and artists that rekindled the passion of Scotland being an entirely Independent country, with its own traditions and culture, rather than some provincial backwater. Their words maintained the struggle and provided the intellectual rigour to assess the Scottish identity, and they embraced Scotland’s culture as vigorously as Voltaire had done two centuries earlier with his play Le Café ou l’Écossaise.
We can now look back to a genuine age of cultural resistance and an attempt to embrace an identity of Scottish cultural nationalism, tied to the belief of the right to self-determination. Look through this list of cultured Scots and ponder where our equivalents are today? Hugh MacDiarmid, Marian Angus, Neil Gunn, A.J. Cronin, James Bridie, Edwin Muir, Wendy Wood, Compton MacKenzie, Robert Garrioch, Eric Linklater, Catherine Carswell, Violet Jacob, the playwright Robert McLellan, sculptor and poet James Pittendrigh Macgillivray, to name but a few of the many. Of course they were marginalised and ridiculed. When MacDiarmid wrote in Scots he was pilloried as a ‘plastic Jock’, while the editors of the Herald and the Scotsman made it their job to belittle him and be as condescending as possible to the rest. It took Sydney Goodsir Smith to tackle the prejudice head on with these calculated and cutting lines.
We’ve come intil a gey queer time
Whan scrievin Scots is near a crime,
‘There’s no one speaks like that’, they fleer,
-But wha the deil spoke like King Lear?
So where are our cultural champions today? I look around the Scottish art scene and see precious few engaging with the debate. Are they afraid of ridicule? Are they waiting for the big names to roll in before sticking the head above the parapet? We had a period in the eighties and early nineties when Gray, Kelman, Lochead, Torrington, Leonard and Spence seemed to cast off the straight jacket of Received Pronunciation and batter the language of the playground onto the page. When the Proclaimers made that first appearance on the Tube, much to the mirth of Jools, Paula and Muriel, who among us was genuinely surprised to hear the suppressed accent of native Scotland broadcast to the rest of the UK? Of late we’ve seen the likes of Banks, Bissett, Kelman, Welsh and Miller make inroads into the status quo. It’s a great start, but it’s not enough. We need creative people to seize the day and articulate the need for change, to make it as simple and natural as breathing.
Success in this referendum simply requires a small swing from the ‘don’t knows’ to alter Scotland forever. We need our artists to engage, to enter the debate, to help us define the cultural landscape from our own unique perspective, yet one that embraces and celebrates art that flourishes without borders.
Purely by chance I attended the Wickerman festival this past weekend. As usual at these events there are too many bands, performers and attractions all vying for the festivalgoer’s scant and alcohol-infused attention. With the odd ember of memory crackling away in the back of my mind, I wandered into one of the large tents as Edinburgh band ‘Stanley Odd’ were starting their set. Boom – instant flashback – I remembered the one track I’d heard of theirs on the now-defunct Word magazine CD compilation. The lyric had been delivered in a hip hop style with a broad Scots accent, and the song I remembered was a laconic cry to change the world, but the poor soul rapping was too tired to get out of bed. I stood to one side of the by now growing and wildly bouncing crowd, strapped on the video camera and was mesmerised at the lyric coming out of the energetic frontman’s gob.
Listen, we’re in trouble kid,
In recession, and how did we discover it?
We were told by a Conservative government,
To take our worst expectations and double it.
Loan sharks circling and hovering,
Social unrest is bubbling,
Maggie’s back in Number 10,
And check the cold facts,
All we’re missing is the shoulder pads and the Poll Tax.
Nae jobs, thousands gettin’ laid off to save costs,
I’m wanting back to the future, Great Scott!
How do I know the economy’s affected?
For the first time in a decade we’ve got £10 eccies,
And to a government voters in the South elected,
We’re a nation of Begbies with wrecked teeth and webbed feet.
Park overnight and win four flat tyres,
As we tell stories round the chip-pan fires,
The economy’s two years behind the UK recovery,
It’s not feeling very Summery.
In summary; we’re heading for independence,
The election handed the union a death sentence,
If the SSP and Solidarity intervene with the SNP and The Greens,
Then it’s four weddings and a funeral for the Union Jack.
To stretch the phrase to incredulity, I was gobsmacked. Here’s a band that are young, that use a form of communication that, despite being around since the days of early Gil Scott Heron is understood and used by young Scots from Drummore to Unst, has people on their feet bouncing around like excitable weans, couple that with a fly wit that lures the listener in and smacks them straight between the eyes. The YES campaign have a band capable of delivering a theme song for Scotland that will make a change, rather than the tread worn, anthemic turd of eighties Dad-rock, Big Country’s much copied ‘One Great Thing’.
So to answer my own question: yes, it was me and yet another of my ‘witty’ nom de plumes on the Guardian. Why are the creative sector shy in stepping forward to embrace the referendum? They’re not. It’s just the administrators and bean counters who don’t want to confront it until it’s staring them straight in the face. Stanley Odd, though, are embracing it with a glee that made this posturing and cynical mountebank crack a smile that outshone the burning Wickerman.
Political and Cultural Blogger