The following is based on a talk given at Voluntary Arts Scotland’s national conference ‘Culture, Creativity and You: Why Making Matters’ on Wednesday 26 February 2014 at Platform, Easterhouse.
I’m here today to talk to you about why I think ‘making matters’ in the Scottish independence debate and why it could matter even more in a newly independent Scotland.
Building a new society – and that is really the challenge that a Yes vote represents – is the ultimate creative act and so perhaps it is fitting to imagine a better country that could await us here. In a room full of people who know the hard work, the pain, the risks and the almost unparalleled rewards of filling in a blank canvas and making something new.
At this point I should make clear that I’m not a politician. I’m here as someone who has been privileged to share my creations with others. I’m not a member of a political party and I hold no office within Yes Scotland. I will do my best to share my opinions with you about cultural policy, but my influence on this front is probably no greater than any one else in this room. In some cases less so.
However I’d argue that in the context of this debate it is apt that I should speak to you today. For me the most exciting thing about this national conversation are the many new voices that are being heard as a result.
For example, no headline has ever given me so much cause for optimism than this from last week’s Guardian:
Glasgow’s East End: front line in the battle for Scotland
This shift of political focus onto Scotland’s most deprived communities is long overdue. It is my strong conviction that, in order to bring these areas back into public life, nothing should be off the table.
To think that this debate is about two competing political elites each with a manifesto that you can pick and choose from is to miss the point. As last night’s edition of Scotland Tonight demonstrated all two well, placing two opposing high ranking politicians in a room sheds very little light on anything other than the hatred and visceral tribalism that they feel for each other.
But the debate on Scotland’s future will not be decided in a media bear pit, it will be decided, and can therefore be influenced by, all of us. If we have the bravery to make our voices heard.
Yes Scotland is a grassroots campaign. It has hundreds of branches in the villages, towns and cities of Scotland.
Just as importantly there are a vast array of groups who have pinned their creative hopes to a Yes vote. These are many and varied, including Business for Scotland, Green Yes, Common Weal and Radical Independence (who will be out canvassing in Easterhouse this evening).
Clearly this is not a narrow movement. It is not, as unionists are so fond of claiming, one man’s obsession. I think that what we’re doing at National Collective is a thoroughly creative illustration of that.
Of course, there is the best part of a century’s worth of cultural momentum behind Yes. From the Scottish Literary Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s to more recent decades in which post-industrial Scotland was relentlessly explored by the likes of Liz Lochead, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman or David Greig, all of whom support Yes and National Collective’s work.
National Collective is also about a younger brand of arts activism. We aim to provide people from all backgrounds with access to the debate through the convening power of art and performance. We have branches in every city, this past weekend we launched our Stirling branch with a sell-out event and Dundee will be holding a launch night this coming Saturday.
We bring together a vast range of creative activity, from Hand Made Scotland: a group who are ‘knitting for Yes’ to poetry, dance and music. All these varied forms of ‘making’ will be brought together at a major cultural event in July.
We have a dedicated group for folk musicians, TradYes. There’s very strong backing from this part of Scotland’s cultural landscape, from Aly Bain to Karine Polwart and also the figure who first persuaded me to back independence, veteran protest singer Dick Gaughan.
This contrasts with the No campaign who have tended to focus on celebrity backing rather than sessions, concerts, or workshops and other grassroots activity. Figures who have backed No, such as Susan Boyle or David Bowie, hold perfectly legitimate views, but do not express them creatively.
I can’t help but ask myself why there is an overwhelming lack of creativity within Better Together’s ranks. Where are the poems, novels, plays, songs or paintings that speak to the idea of a better future for the union? If they do exist, they have not been brought to the defence of the institution itself.
There is a broader point here that speaks to us about the nature of culture. The arts are not just another sector of the economy, they are far more important than that, whatever Maria Miller might say. Culture defines the words that we use, the shape of our cities, it is how we recognise each other as part of a community.
I’d like to draw to a close with a statistic. In the 2011 Election turnout in the constituency that we are now in, Glasgow Provan, was 34.5%. Just consider the significance of that figure.
65% of people chose not to participate in the democratic process in this area. If that is not evidence of a broken system in need of radical change, then I don’t know what is.
But there’s a bitter logic to not participating. In the 2010 general election for example, throughout the whole of the UK, 51% of votes cast were for losing candidates, 51% of all the votes cast meant nothing in terms of the make up of today’s Westminster parliament. With the opportunity of independence we can do a better job of representing people, we need to do better, or the consequences are simply too dire to contemplate.
I think that the consequences of chronic disengagement have damaging implications for all types of collective activity, not just politics.
So when Radical Independence is out in Easterhouse tonight, it will be explicitly seeking to make this referendum one in which the ‘missing million’, who do not take part in Scottish public life, make their voices heard. If turnout (as experts predict) is high for September’s vote the result could be transformative. Staking out a new society is a creative, public and democratic act of participation.
Finally let me leave you with this quote from Irish writer Fintan O’Toole’s book Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic. O’Toole looks at the financial crash in Ireland and argues that it provides an opportunity to go back to first principals and build a new republic worthy of the name. For me his words have equal resonance for Scotland and its coming referendum.
“We need to start thinking of Ireland as a voluntary organisation – a collective we can choose to belong to but that functions only to the degree that we get involved.”
That’s why I will be voting Yes. For the opportunity to craft a society that is a collective we can all choose to belong to.