Editorial: It’s Just Music, Darling

Alistair Darling’s latest contribution to the independence debate featured something that is, absurdly, becoming an increasingly popular theme in the rhetoric of the Better Together campaign.

British music will no longer be our music. British art, dance and drama will no longer be ours. British sporting success will be someone else’s to celebrate. Here’s a thought: why can’t we be both Scottish and British?

Cue a barbecue of tweets, sizzling with condescension, as the thundering imbecility of Darling’s remarks sank in to the collective consciousness of the Yes Community and beyond. Like any soundbite, it aims to reassure and perpetuate the preconceptions of its target audience, with the obvious flipside being that those who disagree begin to froth with outrage at the deliberate and misleading simplicity of the claim. Scotland’s musical community was quick to react – National Collective’s Lou Hickey, a leading light of Scotland’s music scene, sent us this:

I find his comments on British culture very immature and narrow minded. We live in the modern world, where we can experience new culture at the click of a Google search… Why should we stay? If the Westminster Government cares about Scotland’s needs so much, why has it got to this stage? Why are we tired of this Union? Instead of misguidedly attacking the SNP, maybe they should focus their arguments on this, and provide us some positives as to why we should stay?

Stuart Braithwaite, guitarist and lead vocalist of the legendary Scottish band Mogwai, tweeted:

They reflected a frustration that is shared across Scotland’s creative community. Of course British music won’t be “our music” after independence. It isn’t “our music” right now. It’s not our music, England’s music, Britain’s music or Europe’s music. It’s just music. In 2009, a group of Germany-based researchers played excerpts of “western” music to 21 Mafa farmers from a remote area of Cameroon with no previous exposure to western styles and a German control group. The Mafa and the Germans identified the same musical “emotions” in approximately half of the 42 instrumental excerpts – far more than could be explained away as coincidence. It’s a horrible cliché, but music is a universal language. Nobody owns it, and nor should they.

But there’s an even deeper problem with Darling’s remarks. With the insistence that we’ll lose key aspects of British culture by leaving the political union of the UK (a union that occurred a century after the union of the Scottish and English crowns and even longer after the notion of “Britain” entered political discourse), the former Chancellor of the Exchequer demonstrates a basic and disturbing inability to understand the innate flexibility of human identity. Surely, as a man who claims to support self-determination, he doesn’t assume the power to impose or revoke another person’s chosen identity?

We don’t think Mr Darling is quite that totalitarian, nor do we think he’s quite that ignorant; we just think he’s lying. He probably knows full well that if Scots want to continue feeling British after independence, they’ll do just that, in the same way that 31% of Scots currently define themselves as “Scottish, not British” despite the evidence to the contrary imprinted on their passports. He probably understands that when Scots listen to Catatonia, The Beatles or Radiohead, we care more about how it makes us feel as human beings than how it makes us feel as “Brits”. He probably understands all of that, but he also knows that as long as the UK is governed by a political party hated by the Scottish people, and as long as successive Westminster governments systematically ignore or demonise our most vulnerable citizens, there aren’t many clear positives to the union. Vague platitudes about a supposedly endangered “culture” will have to do.

There a small, tiny, miniscule possibility that Darling could be on to something, though. We may not “own” music, but we can still feel proud of it. Scotland’s musical culture is markedly different from England’s. Our best bands and artists belt out lyrics drenched in Scottish cultural references in their own accents, and they have made a contribution to music spanning genres and continents that should make us giddy with pride and excitement at our nation’s cultural potential. Scottish music often reflects our own political culture – or at least the political story we tell ourselves – through a preoccupation with collectivism. Glasgow heroes Belle and Sebastian experimented with a radical collective decision-making process on some records, while Mogwai’s last EP contained a song titled “George Square Thatcher Death Party,” reflecting – perhaps insensitively – Scotland’s traditional hostility towards unchained free-market individualism. Frightened Rabbit’s songs often express a darker, melancholy interpretation of Scottishness, with references to “pouring Scottish rain” and a body “floating in the forth” on their breakthrough album The Midnight Organ Fight. There’s a quiet (though Mogwai’s “Like Herod” begs to disagree) cultural nationalism on show here, but it’s part of a progressive, creative approach to identity – an attempt to distil the romance, tragedy and conflicted personality of past and present Scotland into a unique national spirit.

This all raises an intriguing question: if our pride in the quality of Scottish music is due to a sense of cultural affinity that is, ultimately, based on a distinctly Scottish political and emotional identity, can we retain a similar pride in music produced after independence in the other areas of the UK – an area with which we also share particular cultural, historical and emotional reference points? As we’ve said, that’s largely up to you: we believe that democracy can change things, but the history, language, family, culture and island that we share with Britain are conditions that will remain entirely unaffected regardless of the way we vote. If you want to be British after independence, you can be – if you don’t, that’s fine too.

The cultural debate will remain, of course. At the very least, there’s something symbolic in voting to end a political union that is vaguely connected to some aspects of our shared British culture. So if this article hasn’t convinced you, consider this:

One in every five Scottish children lives in poverty. If you, as the proud Scot you probably are, share our belief in the ability and the will of the Scottish people to use the full and awesome powers of a sovereign state to tackle Scotland’s profound social problems head-on, then surely you can at least imagine the appeal of independence. If fear over the potential “loss” of British culture is enough to override such a phenomenal prospect, there are only two options: Either you’re a terrible and shallow human being, or you’ve still got doubts about Scotland’s ability to achieve something better. That’s why Alistair Darling and the rest of Better Together are mixing their feeble efforts at a “positive case” for the union with a full-frontal assault on our national self-confidence. So if you ever wonder why so many of our great Scottish bands and songwriters sing so frequently and so heart-wrenchingly about deep-rooted fears, insecurities and a powerful underlying fury at some ungraspable injustice, just remember – there are people who have spent decades telling us to feel just that way. If we don’t vote Yes, they might never stop. Let’s give our renowned songwriters and musicians something better to sing and play for; and we’ll happily let the rest of the world enjoy that as well.

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There are 3 comments

  1. Emmie Mears

    I love this article. It addresses so much that should be clear — I never choose a band by the country of its origin. And while I love Mogwai and Albannach and Frightened Rabbit (this band, I am convinced, brought my husband and I together), I love their music as music. While sometimes it evokes pathos and reminds me how much I miss Scotland (specifically with songs like Floating in the Forth and Swim Until You Can’t See Land, which always makes me think of the times I went swimming off the coast of St. Andrews in the freezing North Sea), essentially people interpret music through whatever filter they need to interpret it through. And that filter isn’t usually, “Oh. This is British music, so I’ll listen to it.”

    I, like you, listen to the Beatles because the words of John Lennon and George Harrison just move me — like they’ve moved millions over the past fifty years.

    Brilliant post. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Lewis Gilmour

    Apologies for commenting upon an ancient article –

    But curious, isn’t it. The article is perfectly correct re: the attempts to
    both localise and nationalise ‘ownership’ of musical heritage.

    It is another aspect that almost all of the music mentioned, ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’ actually has more of a root in the U.S. than over here, though with some historical touch of waulking songs, madrigals, German equal temperament, Spanish/Moorish instruments, etc.

    But Darling’s whole premise is just stupid on an even more basic level.

    It remains that Britain is the name of the archipelago. Spain and Portugal are both Iberian even since Portugal was ‘restored’ (they still share the peninsula); Scotland will remain British still, even should England sink beneath the waves under the heaving weight of Eric Pickles.

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