John McGrath's play Joe's Drum was, as he explains in an introduction to the published version, a direct response to two major events.
First, the failure of the devolution referendum of March 1979, and secondly the election two months later of a Conservative government backed by only a "tiny minority" of Scots (actually 31.4 per cent, but hey ho).
McGrath didn't have much time for politicians in general. The SNP was dismissed as "ever-more-Right-leaning" while Jim Callaghan's Labour Party was merely marginally less zealous than the wicked Tories in its pursuit of "a smoother-running capitalist economy". More widely, ruminated McGrath, there "was a dangerous bored fatalism in the air, an uncharacteristic passivity", to which he responded via Joe Smith, an Edinburgh drummer dead for two centuries but roused from "the sleep of the just" by the "thunderous apathy of the devolution vote".
The year 1979 thus features prominently in the post-war Scottish narrative, largely as a result of the importance attached to it by the cultural community. This has inevitably given rise to mythology, for example the claim in the Scottish Review of Books this weekend that, in the "aftermath of '79, a deep gloom settled on Scotland". What's meant is that a deep gloom settled over the devolution-supporting chattering classes, both the turnout and margin of victory having hardly represented, as Sir Tom Devine later concluded, "a ringing endorsement of Home Rule".
There is a gap between how Scotland's "creatives" see political events and the perspective of the wider electorate, although it's clearly one that frustrates some independence-supporting artists.
The novelist Alan Warner has referenced the 1979 "fiasco" and claimed a Yes vote would "free us as Scottish writers from a hidden war that rages inside our minds; it would grant us the light wings of a new responsibility". A No vote, on the other hand, would have "sinister and depressing implications".
He warned a No vote would "create a profound and strange schism between the voters of Scotland and its literature; a new convulsion". That sounds quite scary, as does the resulting "death knell" for the whole Scottish literature "project", "a savage division" suddenly existing "between the values of most of our writing - past and present - and the majority of our people".
It was extraordinary hyperbole on a number of levels, proof of the adage that writers should stick to writing and leave politics to the politicians. Most writers' interventions in the independence debate (on both sides) have betrayed the worst sort of naive, ill-informed analysis worthy of student politics. There are honourable exceptions, but not many. Levels of sanctimoniousness have also gone through the roof, a frame of mind that would have us believe that economics and public policy are somehow of second-order importance when set aside the cultural arguments for independence. There's irritation at the non-creative community's preoccupation with such trifling concerns.
Which brings me to my old friends National Collective, who recently surpassed themselves with an excruciating piece of commentary on Wednesday's Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Dripping with snobbery, Andrew Redmond Barr described the first segment of the ceremony ("like a Brigadoon pantomime") as "at times crude, denigrating and inauthentic", one that had, of course, "Unionism written all over it".
Mr Barr's curious habit of contrasting what he considered the "authentic" parts of the ceremony (a South African rendition, for example, of Hamish Henderson's Freedom Come All Ye) with those deemed "inauthentic", was the objectionable bit. "This was Scotland," he writes, "through a British lens." His piece was also laced with the low-level paranoia I've come to associate with a certain view of the world and Scottish politics, one in which everything is plotted by dastardly Brits within the reactionary bowels of the "Westminster system". During the ceremony, he observed, "you could almost hear the sighs of relief and rubbing of hands from the offices of Downing Street and Whitehall".
Of course, liberation is at hand, for in September comes the opportunity to reject Britain's "string-pulling, patronising, interfering" and, no doubt worst of all, "its cultural neglect" (quite what form this neglect has taken isn't clear). A Yes vote will enable Scotland to do away with cringe and doubt and instead "tell a story of our own making to the world", an "authentic" story, one assumes, approved by National Collective.
The trouble is, there's a huge gap not only between self-styled creatives and most voters but also between what they appreciate in cultural terms. To Mr Barr it's of little importance that about nine million people watched the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony on BBC1, for they were presumably too conditioned by "inauthentic" British culture to know any better.
By contrast, several hundred people turn out for hipster politics National Collective-style in Pittenweem and that, therefore, is viewed as "authentic" Scottish culture with, naturally, a mass and popular following. (This self-delusion is unfortunate, for National Collective has produced some decent stuff, not least a handsomely produced volume Inspired by Independence.)
This view of culture and its importance is not confined to any political tribe; cultural self-importance is too big to be constrained by party or constitutional politics. Thus the arts commentator and Turner Prize judge Jonathan Jones recently condemned nationalism as a "cultural black hole" leading to "small-mindedness", which doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny.
He made the point that the "ambiguity" of two identities, Scottish and British, playing off against each other was "interesting", but rather spoiled that argument by going on to say that Scottish art was "doing brilliantly" as a mere "inflection" of its British counterpart.
Scottish art, however, thrived in the years following the 1979 devolution referendum, which rather made a nonsense of the argument posited then (as now) that somehow only devolution (or independence) can liberate Scotland's artistic community to give full expression to their creative genius. In the post-1922 Irish Free State, by contrast, cultural life did not obviously benefit from Dominion status, or for that matter from the Irish Republic's later departure from the British Commonwealth. Irish writers and artists continued to do their thing but nationalism, in that context, only takes creativity so far.
Perhaps, then, the ideal space for "creatives" is that which lies between full independence and the Union? "It is to be hoped that the drum will go on beating into the '80s," wrote McGrath in September 1979, "to waken us from our curious hibernation", and of course it did, just as it beats still, although perhaps not quite in the way some anticipated it would 35 years ago.
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