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The case for culture at the heart of indy referendum

The Better Together campaign to preserve Scotland as a province of the United Kingdom doesn't have a big bag of tricks.

Complexity is frowned upon by political strategists of the modern sort. Besides, there are only so many ways to say the enervating word No. The idea is to keep the message as simple as those bovine creatures, the people.

For anyone paying attention, this gets a bit tedious after a couple of years, but the provincialists are not deterred. Like flapping pigeons desperate for a familiar landscape, they return time and again to a single theme: vote Yes on September 18 and you "get" the Scottish National Party, its programme, and - for the three must be as one - its leader, Alex Salmond.

Aside from displaying a strange lack of faith in their ability to best the SNP in future elections, the provincial parties don't seem to think much of voters or their ambitions. Also forgotten is the usual eagerness to treat the Nationalists' achievement of an absolute Holyrood majority in 2011 as a freak. Vote Yes, says the fantastical tale, and it's Salmond for all eternity.

Plenty of the SNP's loyalists would also like to believe that. They expect the achievement of independence will bring its reward. As a short-range forecast, this is probably correct. If they are defeated in September, the advocates of provincialism will lose more than an argument. Their judgment of Scotland's best interests will have been rejected.

That won't last. As the referendum is not a vote on the SNP's programme, more will be desired. Whether more will be delivered is the question that forms the land just beyond the horizon. A lot of people have been working hard to glimpse, predict and even shape that bit of land. Many arguments are being made. Many books are being written. This is as healthy as it is inevitable.

Some have said that the poetry of a Yes vote makes nothing happen. That's not exactly true: the act will alter the actors. There is no doubt, nevertheless, that an opportunity without precedent will arise to fashion a country, an economy, a culture and a society. Not from scratch - a dangerous delusion - but at least on the back of a frayed palimpsest. If we cannot quite start again, we can certainly think again.

Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach, painter and poet respectively, want us to think again about that big-small word, culture. They want us to examine a seemingly startling idea that, first advanced by Riach in this newspaper: that the cultural argument is not just the chief argument for independence - what else would a poet say? - but the only argument. If you intend to remake the nation there is only one place to start and one to finish, one bedrock on which to build. You could call that bold.

Arts Of Independence is not some aesthetes' manifesto. The authors are alive to party politics, economics, social policy and the rest. They handle those plastic objects with sophistication. But here are matters arising in a country whose National Galleries "still has its Scottish paintings in the basement", galleries which have not managed to find a Scot as "the right person for the job" of director since 1949. Elsewhere, these facts would be thought odd. As Moffat remarks early in the book, "there are powerful vested interests for Scotland not to be normal".

Still: culture first and above all? This in a political "debate" whose protagonists see nothing amiss when opinion pollsters ask Scots if they would change their vote for £500? This in a country whose social ills are profound and historic, in which persuading any politician to treat culture as more than an afterthought has defeated generations of makers? The old rebuttals endure. Given the choice between poetry and an end to poverty, most would not hesitate. The versifiers would have to shift for themselves.

That response is predictable. Just as predictably, it misses the point, as Moffat and Riach are at pains to explain over the span of three essays and three illuminating dialogues. Without imagination, without access to what imagination means, statehood is a collection of trappings and procedures from which nothing grows. Why else is it that Scotland's artists, in so many fields, are so committed to the idea of independence, or why - to put it another way - the Better Together campaign is so bereft of creativity?

The new canvas and the fresh page are irresistible because of the possibilities they imply. A country is given life by its arts. Memory, ideas, history, imagination shared: in these, not in political prescriptions or some poisonous fantasy of ethnicity, are "we". Art is the original state of independence in a homogenised world. And as the poet remarks at one point, "The national distinctiveness of Scotland in the whole long trajectory of its historical achievements has got to be seen in the context of Europe as a whole..." That might be the largest truth in a fine book. The relationship with the invention called Britain has had the effect of suppressing Scotland's culture and therefore its identity. By this account, the point of independence - the whole point, as the authors might say - is to reassert a claim to a place among the countries of Europe. The connections are innumerable, but too often obscured in the shadows of Union.

As Gerry Hassan's title indicates, he already feels free to dream of what might follow independence. In his glimpsed future there is an enlarged democratic space in which every voice can be heard, in which power, authority and decision-making are not reserved occupations, and in which debate will be guided by empathy.

But Hassan also feels a need to guide the rest of us in the art of dreaming. He says we must first clear our minds by recognising six "myths" on which, he alleges, modern Scotland depends. Democracy, egalitarianism, educational opportunity, holding power to account, social democracy, and the idea of "open Scotland": in these, he reckons, we are deceived. Many would agree. Most would be Unionists keen to prove that Scotland is no different "really" - those strange voting habits aside - from our neighbours.

Hassan doesn't go that far. He does however tend to ignore the difference between what Scots believe and what they endure. That one-quarter of Edinburgh's pupils attend public schools is an ancient non-secret that does not - how could it? - eradicate a belief in educational opportunity. That there is grotesque inequality in a country governed from a distance has not rendered the egalitarian instinct a myth. "Popular sovereignty is not a legally binding concept" because Westminster claims all sovereignty, not because Scots are deluded.

When you are done objecting to false oppositions, Caledonian Dreaming contains any number of penetrating insights into the nature of the old-established order. Hassan's concluding "Fifty Possible Policy Actions" is meanwhile as fine and hopeful a manifesto as you will find, a list reflective of an author resolutely open to good ideas from any quarter. That Scots remain receptive to those is not, mercifully, a myth.

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