Amy Westwell: Culture Should Play An Important Role In The Referendum Debate


National Collective were invited by The Herald to contribute a regular column for their website. This is the excellent first instalment – a stirring personal piece from Amy Westwell, who will be writing the column.

National Collective is the non-party movement of ‘artists and creatives’ for independence, which seeks to engage and inspire the people of Scotland through the creative arts; its members are writers, artists, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and everything in between.

We have no party line, and publish the views of members of wildly diverse political persuasions. This is what makes our approach chime with this political moment, as the decision made in the referendum next year will not be made on the basis of one set of principles.

Some will make the decision based purely on hard-headed political facts, others on sentiments, or a sense of history, others on what they deem to be best for their families and friends. Most people will decide based on a mixture of these things. There is, unfortunately but predictably, no settled will of the Scottish people.

My own support for independence is based on the potential for working people’s lives to be better and more autonomous in an independent Scotland, and a belief that my party, the Labour party, can create a Scottish political culture that challenges the exploitation of labour by corporations.

As a feminist, I also believe that this is the most important step for women: a Scotland where women work in well-paid, skilled jobs, and are accounted for in macro-economic considerations of government. As a young person, and a student, I am hopeful for renewed interest in Scottish education and universities with the creation of an independent Scottish state. I want students in Scotland to have access to a wealth of education, without a sense that education can be bought and sold, and without having to worry about how to fund their studies.

I know also that parts of my decision are based on more romantic strains of political sentiment. As a student of the history of political thought, I cannot help but be inspired at the idea of the state-creation, of the creation of a new public, a new politics, a different outlook on the world.

But the question I have most often asked myself is why my Scottish cultural sentiment should be nationalist – why it should lead me to any political conclusion. It’s a question that the ‘cultural nationalists’ in Scotland, particularly in literature and fine art, have rarely publicly answered, apart from to claim that the ‘interests’ of Scottish culture might be better served were we to have more money to teach Scottish literature in schools.

My own experience of Scottish culture is not based around Scottish literature, but around Scottish music. I learned the fiddle in Orkney, with the Orkney Traditional Music Project, which allowed children in Orkney to learn traditional music for free. Quite an old-fashioned version of Scottish culture, you might think, despite the folk revival and the number of young people who play trad today.

But it was the communitarian nature of the project, the idea that a tradition in music is for the purpose of bringing people together in entertainment and education, that expressed something more about this culture than its particular artistic form. Culture, in this broader sense, means the way that people live. It is based on the values of the people and their understanding of what tradition is for, and is merely expressed in the arts.

‘Culture’ as the real expression of the people, existing in the realm beyond economic and political relationships, and therefore crucially beyond the ‘individual’ was an idea famously promoted by EPThompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson criticised orthodox Marxists and Fabians for ignoring the lives and agency of working people, and described a new approach which understood all men and women as actively creating their culture for themselves, however much that creation might be determined by economic relationships. According to this approach, culture is truly of the people. If politics in Scotland is to be of the people, culture should play an important part in the referendum debate.

The argument runs the other way as well. Political and economic change in Scotland would influence the way we live, our culture, for good or for ill. Were Scotland to become independent, there would be a period when Scottish culture was reshaped, or even reborn. I have argued elsewhere that this is not something to be frightened of, for the creation of a Scottish state would mean we had a different relationship as new Scottish citizens to our common culture, with more democratic control over the way we live our lives. In any case, as Raymond Williams said, “a culture, while it is being lived, is always in part unknown, in part unrealised. The making of a community is always an exploration, for consciousness cannot precede creation, and there is no formula for unknown experience.”

What is the culture ‘of the people’ that might be drawn upon in order to create a Scottish state? It is probably, as Thompson’s Scottish counterpart TC Smout suggested in a recent issue of Perspectives, not some peculiarly Scottish set of values and traditions, but something more along the lines of the nationalisms of the 19th Century, based on the appeal to the common values of liberté, égalité, fraternité. These are the most strongly felt values of the people:  the way we live today, our culture, presumes certain freedoms, and there is popular outrage against attacks on liberty such as blacklisting of workers, zero-hour contracts, or workfare.

From the liberalism of our strong cultural traditions, more radical politics can emerge. What is political liberty when you are on a zero-hour contract, what is the vote for women when women are so underrepresented in politics, or formal fraternity when you may not join a trade union? The questions are old – my party, Labour, has been asking them for a century – but they still reflect the lives of ordinary people. The chains of questions that might lead us to form a radical Scottish state are embedded in our common culture, and this is why the cultural argument is so important for radicals.

It is this common culture that we need to express. National Collective is the campaign which comes closest to Scotland’s cultural roots in this independence debate, because it is open to different perspectives, to interrogations of what it is to be Scottish, political, or living in these times. It is also a campaign of predominantly young people, and so expresses a political culture that is not the tired third-sector bourgeois culture of the baby boomer generation. I can’t think of a better place for political change to spring from.

Amy Westwell
National Collective


About Amy Westwell

Amy Westwell is from Edinburgh and studies History and Politics at Glasgow Uni. She is involved in feminist activism in Glasgow, running a feminist reading group and volunteering with Rape Crisis Scotland.