Project Don’t-Know-Yet: or, Imagine Scotland

As the mushroom-meets-phantom-shaped cloud of “Project Fear” hovers menacingly over the independence debate, it’s tempting for Yes supporters to recast themselves as “Project Hope”. Let’s point vast turbines of positivity, optimism, hope – and a rebuttal/probuttal list of counter-facts – in their direction. Inevitably, their poisoned clouds will dispel, and the sunny uplit lands will be ours.

You might think that a room full of Yes-supporting artists and creators – for whom unquenchable optimism (especially between freelance payments) is a functional necessity – might line up behind that analysis. I chaired a meeting at the Citizen M hotel a fortnight ago, in which myself and Yes Scotland’s Jen Dempsie pulled together our contacts, and got a good 40 people across ages, stages and sectors to talk with precision and originality about the challenges of a Yes vote (National Collective was there too, and will be reporting from this and further meetings).

Yet I would say most of the creatives present were most engaged by the idea of what you could call “Project Don’t-Know-Yet”. If the largest bulge of polled respondents to the question of independence are still in the “undecided” camp, then there is a large mental and emotional space at the core of this campaign which is full of doubt, insecurity, confused loyalties, clashing aspirations…

Now, for whom are these feelings and responses meat and drink? Certainly the storytellers, dramatists, visualisers, movers and melody-makers of all kinds who were in that room the other week, and whose peers are – in very large majority – supporting the idea of a YES votes. Speaking at the beginning and throughout, dramatist David Greig and songwriter/performer Karine Polwart both saw the challenge – that is, dealing openly and tenderly with the doubts and worries that their Scottish audiences might have, about the consequences of independence – as an exciting creative opportunity.

David cited the experience of the forming of the National Theatre of Scotland – which eschewed the big flashy new building, and built itself through talent networks, good ideas, experimental locations. The lesson? There’s a politics of “modesty and honesty” that can oppose a politics of “bigness and arrogance”. His suggestion was for something he tentatively titled “Imagine Scotland” – community events which combined stimulating presentations/performances, and then a participative forum or workshop, in which the only brief was to openly “imagine” the future of the country.

(There were a number of suggestions for community-based cultural drives – Kevin Williamson’s 2014 Social Club, National Collective’s own local groups, So Say Scotland’s participative exercises. If they get up and running – and we can properly schedule them – they will already represent a teeming creative culture of independence).

Karine referred to her pre-artist past – both as a worker for Scottish Women’s Aid, and doing her post-grad in philosophy for Catherine McCall at Glasgow – and asked us to consider some notions about separation. “Leaving is a process, not an event” – and the subtlety and delicacy of that leaving had to find a mode of expression.

She also reminded us, from her experiences, that “not all change is incremental – some of it can be transformational. We can make ‘this’ stuff into ‘other’ stuff!” But to have that confidence to change your mind about your future, said Karine, you have to draw from strong “life experiences” – the domain that her own songs explore, as do many other artists. “So the Yes campaign has to reach that level – of being about transformation for people”.

The rest of the meeting was a bracing, practical sharing of tips, tricks and existing initiatives. Comedy sector people like Elaine C. Smith and Tommy Sheppard talked about the importance of humour and one-liners to puncture people’s doubts quickly. As example, Elaine C. said how she often compared the current constitutional state of affairs to “the student whose left home, but still brings their washing home”. We need to dig up more of those!

Others noted the success of We Are Northern Lights in making a great artwork out of mass participation in video-making. How could we use social media to develop that process, and seed the Scottish blogosphere with compelling content? This would drive visitors to their platforms, making them more viable – just as the mainstream Scottish press implodes economically, and in any case largely misrepresents the debate.

There was a lot of energy around for an early 2014 UnConference or “Yestival” (in Alan Bissett’s words) – an event at which a range of speakers, artists, performers, and forum-makers could come together to show the world (and themselves) the sheer quality of culture and ideas that the prospect of a Yes vote generates.

And to be clear, this “quality” is about as far away from a unified “Team Scotland” approach as you could imagine. Though the talk turned – as it often does in these events – to “Black Watch”, I remembered a clip from John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, burning out of the previous week’s episode of STV’s Road To Referendum. No easy consolations, in any element of McGrath’s epic, for any actor – elite or citizen, socialist or capitalist – in Scottish life.

The freedom of artists and creatives to imagine and produce is a healthy spring feeding into Scottish democratic life, keeping it flowering and fertile. The core message of Yes Scotland – of which I’m a board member – is that a vote for independence is a vote for a basic principle: that the people of a nation should have all the political tools, not just some, by which their democratic decisions can be turned into real policy.

What artists and creatives can do best is to explore the human landscape, the ins and outs of our rational and passionate lives, in which independence might flourish and prosper. Or as equally, grapple with the wicked issues, old and new, that independence will raise. I hope these discussions help us build the platforms and events that can support this great “imagining” of Scotland.

If you’re interested in getting involved in some of these events or discussions, please contact National Collective, or myself at Thoughtland. Please provide an appropriate public contact, and details of any existing projects you’re working on (or new projects you want others to work on). We’ll monitor all this and help to make or support the connections, one way or another.

Pat Kane


About Pat Kane

Pat Kane, 49, is a musician, writer, consultant and activist. He is author of Tinsel Show (1992) and The Play Ethic (2004), is a Board member of YesScotland and is still one half of Hue And Cry. He blogs at Thoughtland