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Agenda: Culture should be at the core of the argument for independence

One year ago, I wrote in The Herald:

"There is only one argument for Scottish independence: the cultural argument. It was there long before North Sea oil had been discovered, and it will be here long after the oil has run out."

That argument does not belong to me, but to writers and artists of all kinds whose work has arisen from Scotland, stretching back to the stories and songs from before Christianity. That immense inherited file remains undervalued, under-researched and under-used, a vast storehouse of resources.

Michael Fry begins his recent book, A New Race of Men, by emphasising that, unusually, he has placed the nation's culture, indeed high culture, on a par with mechanised agriculture, steel production, housing problems and other such matters that form the normal pabulum for academic historians of Scotland.

Some would argue that, without an understanding of culture and literature, history is simply inadequate. History, after all, is literature: telling stories in another way. Michael Fry's justification goes further, though. He argues that, socially and economically, Scotland might justly be understood as merely a region of England, but in politics and culture, it's different. This is as valid a foundation for a history of Scotland as it is for independence.

But it needs to be demonstrated, fully, confidently, because the good of the arts, especially in Scotland, is so often neglected or trivialised.

In 1913, Ezra Pound wrote: "The arts give us a great percentage of the lasting and unassailable data regarding the nature of man, of immaterial man, of man considered as a thinking and sentient creature. They begin where the science of medicine leaves off or rather they overlap that science." Now we would insist, "man and woman", but the essence of what Pound says is true. So the question is, as with medicine, how do we make best use of that data? The NHS in England is being sold off. What of the arts?

The commercial ethic is opposed to democracy because it prioritises making money over human beings as thinking and sentient creatures. It endorses the "material" and denigrates or liquidates the "immaterial". But the "immaterial" is vital for human wellbeing. Democracy educates and education democratises. What sort of education would you like? One in which Scottish traditions in literature, music and painting are central?

On November 9, 2013, the RSNO performed Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, preceded by a talk about the composer and the work. The talk opened with a question on a screen: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" The screen flicked to three photographs: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten. Who is the greatest British composer?

The analysis of the symphony that followed was marvellously revealing and rich, enhancing the audience's understanding when the work was beautifully performed in the second half of the evening. But the question was still hanging in the air. The point is that these are not British but wonderfully, emphatically English composers. On the following evening, at St John's Kirk in Edinburgh, a Remembrance Day service included a performance of the cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem, by Ronald Center, a Scottish composer whose work remains almost unknown. This masterwork for minimal resources is not diminished by comparison with Vaughan Williams - if only we could hear it in a critical context of confident appreciation.

The same argument applies in different ways to painting and literature. All the arts resist the hegemony of power. Hugh MacDiarmid and William McTaggart are both long overdue full reappraisal. Major exhibitions of the work of J.D. Fergusson are now underway in Edinburgh and Perth but how many visitors know of his manifesto for political and artistic independence, or that he wrote in 1943: "Independent art is created by an independent people. Is that saying too much? Well, gaze around in this year of grace."?

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