Sometimes it is easy to forget just how remarkable the recent journey to a vote on independence in 2014 has been.
To both the envy of the Catalans and the indignation of the British establishment, we have got to this stage in a way that few could have foreseen. To a large extent this has happened thanks to the ability of activists and politicians to claim new ground and to defy the odds.
Media and Online Space
A client media has allowed the pro Westminster camp unlimited editorial space. We all remember the Scottish Sun’s front page in 2007. Since then the Scottish public have become accustomed to pro-UK propaganda on a vast array of different subjects.
“Project Fear” is just the latest in an ingrained habit of denying legitimacy to any argument that says Scots are able to run their own government. The establishment of one of the wealthiest countries in the world has been hell bent on preserving the current consensus in its own back yard.
The resilience of Scots to these pressures must signal the beginning of something radical and important. Meanwhile the Scottish press is largely preoccupied with its own death throes. The tiny niche that is Scottish broadcasting is equally beset by ills, as this informative discussion from the Scottish Constitutional Commission illustrates.
Despite this systemic break down in national communication Scottish politics has never been more exciting. That is something truly remarkable.
Political movements are contingent on people being able to get together. Isolation only produces more of the same. Given this set of circumstance the only logical answer is that people are becoming more engaged in Scottish politics and more intensely so.
The digital revolution has certainly played a big role in this. Yet without a flourishing of happenings on the ground it will continue to be side-lined as the realm of “cybernats”: the scapegoat to a worried and embittered coterie of Scottish journalists.
We need to remember that there is a real and damaging digital divide in our society. By placing too much stock in the Yes Campaign’s digital credentials and not taking the creativity, the arguments and the ideas to Scotland’s non-digital spaces, we risk leaving behind many of those who need independence the most.
The Decline of Public Space
The lack of public debate in the media is mirrored in Scotland’s communities. 10 years of New Labour government saw a devastating reduction in the number of social and sports club (by 55%) alongside smaller declines in the number of swimming pools, pubs and public libraries. There was parallel surge in the number of betting shops (39%) and casinos (27%).
Once an affordable and dynamic hotbed of creativity, central Edinburgh is now a brilliant example of the mass privatisation of public space. Developments like the largely vacant Quartermile or the resplendent Craighouse campus, show that to be of value in the perverse world of the modern Scottish city, public money and public space only seems to be able to find fruition in the form of luxury housing developments.
In an issue dedicated to the subject the Scottish Left Review stated earlier this year:
“A modern city is successful only as far as the governance of that city is used to benefit commercial activity taking place in that city.”
Pubs in Scotland – the scene for flytings and the gestation of change since the claret soaked days of the Scottish enlightenment – are on their knees, systematically destroyed by out-of-town supermarkets against which they can’t compete. Most Scottish drinking now happens at home – the results are obviously damaging and anti-social.
For similar reasons our high streets are fast becoming vacant. Even in our working lives, the noisy, but inherently dynamic factory floor has been replaced by the docile factory farm of the call centre. In short the atomisation of our society into closed off suburban units continues apace.
For independence to happen and to flourish, we need to reclaim what was always our own: the spaces in which people interact. Simply citing the locations in which the decision to vote yes or no will be made is not enough.
We need to look away from the ever more tourist geared Edinburgh and the development mad Glasgow and once again create places where public discourse based on the flowering of real connectivity can occur. We need to begin this process now.
The Role of Creativity
Scholars have attributed part of the genesis of the Scottish Enlightenment to the cramped, but remarkably social nature, of 18th century Edinburgh. Scots, in building the world’s first skyscrapers, had accidentally created a city-based commonality where the spread of ideas was as virulent as the spread of disease.
We need to light up the commonality once again.
We need big, bold, statements. The independence campaign shouldn’t be afraid to look at the precedent set by the Occupy movement and should make creative use of every available space it can. Online and offline.
An organisation like National Collective can use the convening power of art and performance to reinvigorate Scotland’s villages, towns, cities and landscapes as places to meet, discuss and imagine the future.
At the same time the Radical Independence Campaign must continue to take to the streets at every opportunity, showing that true activism can still flourish in the face of political apathy. Yet their legitimate anger and agitation must also be infused with creativity, humour and performance, to grab as much attention as possible.
Talking about ideas does not turn them into reality. The task is to make them so pervasive and engaging that ignorance is no longer possible. It is to say with the voice of the individual and the collectivity that we all have a right to envision the society that we want to see and to do so as loudly and as publicly as we see fit. Every singe person involved in the referendum debate needs to take part in this process of reclamation.
Those of us in the vanguard have to demonstrate to the rest of Scottish society that a change is happening for the better. We need to snatch media attention wherever possible. We have to find creative new ways of engaging with generations of apathy. Above all we need to re-inhabit the streets, pubs, village halls, social clubs: all of the available public space in Scotland.
The old means of mass communication are dead, or dying. The independence generation has to creatively fill that vacuum with real and engaging conversation.
Any movement for change is about claiming new space: politically, socially, and culturally. Confronting an existing regime on its own terms never works.
The No campaign may have massive governmental and media resources on their side – however we have laughter, creativity, imagination and change on ours.