In the words of the fantastic Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz TV series; Look around you. Not, around you, but around this article. Look at this website. To the right, you’ll see creative projects campaigning innovatively for independence, you’ll see recommended articles, some of them by incredibly well revered and prominent Scottish artists. You’ll see that this website has a combined Facebook and Twitter following of over 10,000, and over 1,200 members. You’ll see links to other websites supporting a more engaging referendum debate. Look down. You’ll see photos exploring cultures and communities in Scotland, right next to more recommended articles by more prominent artists and creatives discussing why they support independence.
Now look up. What do you see? The words ‘National Collective: Artists and Creatives for Scottish Independence‘. We’re the arts movement for an independent Scotland, however we don’t cover the entirety of Scottish arts, there’s discussion taking place beyond us. So why do Unionist campaigners and sections of the UK press keep claiming artists aren’t speaking out about independence or that independence would be bad for the arts?
Before I discuss this properly, let’s play a game. It’s called ‘list notable artists in favour of independence’. It’s a fun game, I promise.
Aidan Moffat, Alan Bissett, Alan Cumming, Alasdair Gray, Alex Boyd, Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Aly Bain, A L Kennedy, Brian Cox, David Hayman, Dick Gaughan, Dougie MacLean, Eddie Reader, Elaine C. Smith, David Greig, Gerard Butler, Frankie Boyle, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Irvine Welsh, James Cosmo, James Kelman, Jenny Lindsay, Jim Sutherland, Karine Polwart, Kevin Bridges, Kirstin Innes, Laura Eaton-Lewis, Limmy, Liz Lochhead, Lou Hickey, Mark Millar, Martin Compston, Pat Kane, Peter Mullan, Ricky Ross, Robbie Coltrane, Sean Connery, Simon Neil (Biffy Clyro), Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai), Tim Barrow, William McIlvanney, Zara Kitson…
This list isn’t anywhere near extensive. This is a very general scope of artists and creatives who have so far announced themselves as voting Yes. Now it is absolutely true that the fact that artists are so pro-independence doesn’t necessarily make independence beneficial for the arts, but such a strong leaning (as in any industry) certainly goes a way to explaining the arts’ role in the debate.
There’s been a pattern in the media recently which has had the (intentional or not) effect of appearing to trivialise and demean the ever-growing cultural movement for independence.
Alistair Darling claimed that Scotland would lose its claim to British culture. This shows a complete misunderstanding of what a culture is. It is impossible to sever our cultural heritage with the Union. Post-independence, a Scot who feels British can still call themselves a Brit, as argued by Simon Varwell in this article. This obsession with the nation-state and strict allocation of human beings is exactly the kind of separatism the cultural and creative independence movements are rallying against. It will be perfectly okay and if anything encouraged for any Scot who considers themselves British to still refer to themselves as such post-independence. If we go independent, we’ll still have fought against Hitler, we’ll still have built the welfare state, we’ll still have done all of the things Britain has to be proud of, as well as all of the things Britain has to own up to. The idea is of creating a new future, not erasing the past.
At a recent Book Festival event featuring ex-Old Labour MP Tam Dalyell, he and the chair discussed the possible motives of the cultural movement for independence (neither of them being part of it). What they settled on was that the cultural movement prioritises sentiment over logic. I’ll paraphrase what I said in the National Collective Book Festival Storify:
Voting Yes is an emotional decision for me. It’s one of the most important decisions I’ll ever make as a Scot, so I’m going to consider it in an emotional light as well as politically, socially and economically. Although, it was logic which first drove me towards wanting to vote Yes. The logic that a nation so politically different to its neighbours governing itself is more democratic and more sensible. The logic that Scotland is at odds with Westminster in almost every way, yet receives little to no compromise in any of these issues. The logic that Scotland should not be forced to keep any nuclear weapons it doesn’t want. Emotion and ‘sentiment’ have heightened my passion for a Yes vote, but to label the cultural independence movement as ‘sentimental’ shows a massive ignorance as to why artists and creatives are coming out so strongly for it.
There is an increasing trend where some commentators are arguing that art and culture should be kept away from the referendum. This is absolute nonsense. Art is not just a pretty painting for a collector to hang on their wall and be proud of being able to afford. Art is not just a commodity designed for passive entertainment. Art is the emotional expression of humanity. Art is our means of conveying human nature and of exploring the world around us. Society and the individual are defined by the political governing of the people who make up their environment, and art is a reflection and direct investigation of this societal make up and its role in the grand portrait of life, the universe and human endeavour. Art is even more than all of that. Why on Earth should this not be considered relevant to a nationwide vote in which we decide whether to govern ourselves or submit certain social powers to a larger political realm?
Political movements have been inspired by single pieces of art. Art has, scarily often, been the one remaining voice of dissent and opposition left to challenge authoritarian and immoral regimes. To claim that Scotland’s first chance in history to decide democratically whether or not to be an independent country should be kept away from the arts is an insult to everyone who has ever fought tooth and nail to inspire change through art, as well as the Scottish artists now working incredibly hard to create a democratic cultural dialogue around a social and cultural issue. Just to be clear, the same would be true of artists campaigning for a No vote. We need a debate which reflects who we are as a people and the role we want to play in the global community, and this is a debate which the arts have always dedicated themselves to creating and supporting. It’s actually quite a shame that one of the few artists to vocally support a No vote on Twitter has had somewhat of a meltdown, as a constructive opposing point of view would help sustain the nature of this debate.
At the weekend, Harriet Harman spoke to The Times (note: paywall) about her vision for an artistically prosperous Scotland within an ‘outward-looking UK’.
You can combine a great sense of roots in culture and tradition and a great optimism for the future on the basis of Scottish identity but have a wide canvas for it. The arts have always been very deeply rooted in a sense of place but are very outward looking, much more outward looking than narrow and introspective.
“The arts and culture have benefited from devolution and I think in a way it seems to be slightly defensive to think that in order to be able to be successful at arts and creativity Scotland needs national borders when in fact it’s absolutely blossoming. Why risk that?”
Essentially, she is arguing for what National Collective is campaigning for, but without any of the extra powers which would actually allow for this. She also supports the idea of an artistically prosperous Scotland within an outward-looking UK, without making any signs as to how the UK will actually become said outward-looking country. Considering there may soon be a referendum on the UK leaving the European Union, and it’s in the UK where the likes of UKIP and the BNP are gaining tract. Where the current 23 millionaires in charge are looking to concrete their status by taxing the poor more heavily for having spare bedrooms, whilst letting £66,000 a year MPs have spare houses, as well as the systematic destruction of publicly-owned institutions. I’m struggling to see the ‘outward-looking’ aspect of all of this.
As you might imagine, the claims by Harman sparked strong reactions from our membership. Here are a couple of other responses to her interview:
While I applaud Ms Harman’s agreement with the SNP’s Fiona Hyslop that art is not a commodity, and should exist for its own sake, she seems to believe Scotland is only capable of producing good art in the context of the Union. This is incredibly patronising, as if suddenly artists would be all fingers and thumbs because political decisions about Scotland were being made in Holyrood instead of Westminster. That just doesn’t make sense. Harman also forgets that the renaissance in, say, Scottish literature over the last thirty years has been partly fuelled by a disillusionment over Scotland’s situation, not a happiness about being in the Union. She talks of ‘a great optimism for the future on the basis of Scottish identity’. Quite. That is exactly why most of the artistic community in Scotland are campaigning for a Yes vote.”
Jenny Lindsay (On Harman’s point about not needing national borders to fuel the arts):
The thing is: nobody is thinking that. Nobody is saying that to be ‘successful’ at arts and creativity Scotland needs national borders. Nobody is talking about risking a blossoming cultural scene. We are talking about autonomy. We are talking about independence. We are talking about creating a better nation. Artists and creatives are a key part of the debate in terms of imagining what that looks like, but the idea that we will all disappear and become inward-looking in the event of independence doesn’t make any sense. The idea that we would all disappear and become inward-looking in the event of a no vote doesn’t make any sense either. To make either statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the arts in society. Risk what? That independence would be so utterly perfect that we would have nothing left to confront, to challenge, to reflect, to use our art to respond to? I’m voting yes and even I don’t think that. This speech contradicts itself in parts, and sets up a false dichotomy between a healthy arts scene on the one hand and independence on the other. It’s a standard rhetorical trick; but it doesn’t survive unpacking.”
Look around you. Not at this website. Look around you, look around the streets, look around our pubs, our churches, our educational institutions, our cafes, our arts venues. What you’ll find is that there is, if not a growing Yes vote per se, a growing sense of confidence in the idea of independence, the idea that Scotland can actually look after itself and play a great role in the world should it go it without the political dominance of Westminster. This gradual swell in national identity comes after years of resigning ourselves to the inevitabilities of the actions of the Union, but most importantly, it comes from the strong sense of community Scotland is all about, and it’s this collective strength which has produced such a thriving arts scene, and which our cultures have the responsibility of maintaining. So yes, art does have a lot to do with the referendum funnily enough, and so far the traditional media have refused to acknowledge this.
*It should be noted that the author of the Huffington Post article has since taken somewhat of an interest in National Collective and will hopefully be coming along to one of our events in the coming months. You can also read Jenny Lindsay’s reply to this article on National Collective.