Why Scottish Culture CAN’T & SHOULD NOT Be Separate From The Independence Movement

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This is a response to Sara McCorquodale’s recent blog titled ‘Why Scottish Culture Must Be Kept Separate From The Independence Push’.

Dear Sara,

I read your HuffPost article and would like to respond. As you will already be gathering from the response to your article in the comments and on Twitter, there are several people who are insulted by some of the things you have said, while others vehemently disagree. Overnight, it also appears that the people who have sympathies with your article are trying to silence the critics by accusing them of being a mythical creature, native to Scotland, called the “Cybernat”. This phrase is a loaded one, and is used by people engaging in the “grudge politics” you appear as keen as I am to avoid. Regardless, debate is all well and good and healthy, though I think you might be a little bit overwhelmed by the response. I’ll start by saying that I hope the response encourages you to engage more with this debate, rather than puts you off engaging with it.

You have responded to many of your critics with “It’s my personal opinion.” That isn’t enough. You have made some pretty sweeping generalisations about Scottish culture, the independence movement and the Scottish Government. Your opinions require a response; they require unpacking and challenging, and this letter is an attempt to do that. Your article is one of the most fearful and saddening approaches to Scottish culture that I have read since Alistair Darling said this. The idea that our culture is so fragile that it could be eroded by a political party is not only woefully untrue, it also shows a wilful intellectual ignorance that is pretty unforgivable from a journalist.

The main criticism I would share with those who have responded to your article online is that it lacks research, and I would also agree that, at least in part, this may be due to the lack of engagement with the independence movement from the media south of the border. If you had engaged with the arts campaign for independence, I seriously doubt your article would be so fearful of what is happening here at the moment. The title of your article also suggests an unrealistic hope that Scottish culture and Scottish artists should keep out of the independence debate. That is a dangerous opinion. While it would probably be going too far to say, as Shelley did, that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the state,” it is often artists and writers who most vocally, due to the platform that their particular art affords them, challenge governments most effectively. Also, this is not just a political movement. It is a creative one. It is a cultural one. And it has to be.

The general tone of your article is one of fear. You are quite clearly fearful about the consequences of Scottish independence, and indeed, fearful of the effects on Scottish culture from the independence movement in general. I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to that. The easiest way to do that is to pick apart each of your fears and give ‘em a bit of a shoogle. That’s the best thing to do with fear – shake yerself out of it. I get a little bit heated at times in what follows, though in the spirit of Enlightened debate I try to see your points before rebutting them. I’ll start by saying that, like yourself, I share a passion for Scottish culture. Unlike yourself, for me this is a key part of wanting independence.

Your article starts by saying:

The great love of my life is a country and it pains me to say it, but up until recently, I thought we might have to break up… the current government’s pursuit for independence has seriously unmoored me from my nationality.”

There’s a fair bit to unpack in this particular fear, but firstly: the SNP have never exactly made a secret of their desire for independence, and they have been in government since 2007. There have been calls for Scottish independence for the last 300 years – some louder than others – but this is a part of our culture. Secondly, if Scotland becomes an independent country, if we really must keep up the tawdry marriage metaphor, think of it more as leaving someone you are no longer in love with because it is bad for both of you: they keep bitching about how much you spend on, er, books and bandages, and you keep bitching about how they never listen to you or allow you any power over the purse-strings or where to go to war, sorry, dinner. You’d like to remain friends. And you will. There will be a bit of negotiating over the cat and the bank account, but you’ll remain friends.

You go on:

Not just because I’m anti-separatist, but because the independence debate has become muddled with what is perceived as Scottish culture – what it means to be Scottish.Prior to the referendum push, English friends used to talk to me about Belle & Sebastian, Idlewild and Iain Banks. Where’s Byres Road? Is everyone three degrees of separation from Alex Kapranos? Where do you stay during The Fringe?

The Boy With The Arab Strap and The Wasp Factory were – for better or worse – tied up with what everyone else regarded as Scottish. And even though this meant two of our most potent exports focused on junkies and messed up families, Scotland was a cultural firework… Its humour dark, its ideas uncompromising, its voice so distinctive… But now all people want to talk about is Alex Salmond. Blah, blah, blah; Salmond, Salmond, Salmond.”

So, this fear is an interesting one. I think you are saying that independence would mean our culture would erode rather than, as I believe, flourish. Leaving aside that many of the people you cite in your article as great examples of Scottish culture are voting ‘yes’ to independence, do you not think that a distinct culture might actually lend support to the calls for full autonomy?

You go on:

So here’s the thing: Scottish culture must be kept separate from the separatist movement. Otherwise those outside the country will largely see Scotland simply as a nation with a bone to pick. Trust me, it’s happening already.”

It was here I started gnawing my own fist. Inadvertently, I am sure, you are using the language of the Better Together camp. It is not a ‘separatist’ movement: it is an ‘independence’ movement. By calling it ‘separatist’ you actually lend support to the calls for independence, as it is a term that denies people a voice. It is also a term laden with fear. Using it is evidence of you projecting your fears on to those calling for independence. As for Scotland being a nation with a bone to pick: well, indeed. She does have a bone to pick. The independence campaign – particularly the creative and cultural campaign here at National Collective, have led a positive, exciting, imaginative campaign to explore the possibilities of no longer having a bone to pick. Of course, rather than reduce the many positive arguments for independence to “a bone to pick” as you do, we prefer to imagine a better Scotland, recognising that we have a real chance here to build a better, more democratic, more socially-just nation where we can finally take control of our, er, carcass of bones. There might be dancing involved.

You go on once more:

The politics of this government must not eclipse centuries of science, art and literature. If they do? Our country’s true legacy will be overshadowed by grudge politics and stupid Braveheart-informed idiocy.”

Ok, I admit to eating my own face at this point. In what land of strange-bloody-strange would the democratically-elected government of Scotland “eclipse” our culture? Have you read Fiona Hyslop’s recent speech? Here it is. You might want to compare that with the message about the importance (or lack thereof) of the arts and culture from Maria Miller. Scottish culture is flourishing. As it always has and always will, regardless of the government. The difference here at the moment is that our current government actually supports the arts in a way that the UK government has rapidly shown it does not. Incidentally, you might also want to take a gander at what artists and creatives managed to achieve when challenging Creative Scotland –  Look! Anyway – I digress. The real fist-swallowing moment comes from your assertion that wanting independence is due to “grudge politics and stupid Braveheart-informed idiocy.” Good lord. I am afraid that at this point it seems like you haven’t engaged with this debate in the slightest. The fairest thing I can say to you about the misinformation packed into that sentence is that if I was asked to write about, say, synchronised swimming – something I haven’t ever seen or engaged with on more than a surface level (I saw it once on the telly), then I might come out with something really ill-informed about it. Like, “synchronised swimming is basically all about the nice swimming caps,” or something. The independence debate is nothing to do with Braveheart. There aren’t any yes campaigners saying it is. It is only ever, and I mean, ever, people who are voting No who bring up Braveheart. Seriously.

Let’s continue: “After the Question Time PR blood bath in June, I was near turning my back on the whole thing. I don’t recognise this country or these people, I thought.” Er, well no – neither did a lot of us. Who was that man at the end with the funny-casual-racism? Oh yeah – he was from UKIP, a party with near-zero support in Scotland. Talking at us about independence. And don’t even get me started on George Galloway… But let’s unpack this one anyway, for what it’s worth: you are equating a crap “political” panel show with an entire nation? Really? When you mentioned the image of Scotland earlier in your article, I did get a twinge of irritation, but it was here I realised where a lot of your fears are coming from: the media. You are overly-conscious of how Scotland “appears” to others, and you have basically projected the worst image you can of Scotland – nationalistic, knuckle-dragging, stupid, parochial – on to this entire debate. Which basically means you have layered reality with a veneer of utter nonsense. As a quick aside, you do know that the media are a bit crap sometimes, right? You can do degrees in how crap and biased the media is. Because of how crap and biased the mainstream media is, it is good to explore other avenues before forming your opinion. I know that sounds really patronising – but so does being told I am voting yes because I watched a film with a rousing soundtrack once…

Let’s finish up: you listen to a radio programme featuring Scottish musicians:

But the thing I loved most of all was there wasn’t a smidge of grudge politics. And do you know why? Because that’s not our culture, it’s just what one party seems hellbent on making it. If you ask me, we shouldn’t let them.”

I think what you mean is that you don’t want Scotland to become independent due to people holding grudges against the English. I think that’s what you mean – you don’t go so far to accuse us of racism, but it’s kinda swirling around in the background of that sentence. Me neither. That would be a terrible foundation to build a better country on. Luckily, that’s not what independence is about. Wanting political and fiscal autonomy and the chance to build a better nation is a funny kind of thing to call a “grudge”. It’s just about the most positive idea in current UK politics. Have a gander at the Common Weal. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a solid foundation for positive change. And guess what – the current government are actively engaging with many parts of it.

Challenge the SNP, for sure – they should be challenged – they are the Scottish Government. All governments should be challenged. That’s one of the reasons I want my government to be closer to home. I am not a member of any political party, I tend to vote Green if you must know. I say this to counter the inevitable accusations of being a mouthpiece for the SNP that tend to come from people too scared to engage with the debate. Artists and creatives have no business becoming mouthpieces for political parties. That is why it is so important to ensure that this debate is about our culture, rather than just leaving it up to the politicians and the political commentators. It is not just a political argument.

I’d like to finish up by agreeing with you about one thing: our culture isn’t based on ‘grudge politics’. Neither is the independence movement. It is extremely exciting, positive, hopeful, energetic – and most of all, creative. Our culture cannot and must not be kept separate from the independence movement. It’s not a “push”, nobody is forcing this on us – it is democracy, the SNP have a mandate for this referendum, and it has been a thrilling sight to see so many people using this historic opportunity to challenge themselves and to debate and discuss our politics, our society and our culture – both the good and the bad. It is a movement. Please engage with it.

All the best

Jenny Lindsay
National Collective

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About Jenny Lindsay

Jenny is a poet and promoter based in Edinburgh. Her work has been featured on the BBC, STV, Channel 4 and the BBC World Service. She has produced commissioned work for, amongst others, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, BBC Radio Scotland, Young Scot, Host City and The Scotsman. As one half of Rally & Broad, Jenny dedicates as much time and energy to promoting the poetry scene as she does to her own writing and performances.