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Vital role of the arts in referendum debate

Two serious men, two gifted men who have sought to add up the two and two of the referendum debate and contrived to come up with five.

Let's take them chronologically. A couple of weeks back, writer and critic Alexander Linklater wrote a piece in which he lamented the lack of argument about Scottish culture.

There was more cultural expression during the devolution process in the 1990s, he advised. But now, "on the brink of revolution, Scotland's cultural elites seem to have fallen into sterile postures of consensus". He reminded us of a time when Scottish artist Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize, the film Trainspotting transformed the image of Scottish cinema and new Scottish fiction gripped publishers.

Now, "the atmosphere is tense, nervous and unimaginative". Really? We might never know why Mr Linklater's Scottish cultural clock seemed to stop 20 years ago. Perhaps that's what happens when you live mostly in London. We might never know why he hasn't registered the rude health of the Scottish novel, the dozen Scots-based Turner finalists post 2000, the growing canon of internationally acclaimed Scottish films and theatre productions and the extraordinary explosion of traditional music through two decades of Celtic Connections.

This "tense, nervous unimaginative" cultural cohort last week announced not one but two round-Scotland sojourns to engage and entertain the electorate. Interestingly, healthily, they reflect a vibrant tapestry of ages, genders and art forms. Listening Lugs reprises the legendary bus tour of the last referendum campaign when writers Willie McIlvanney, Billy Kaye, and Neal Ascherson joined theologian Will Storrar on a journey of conversational exploration.

The 2014 brand has a much expanded cast list, as befits the significance of the questions being asked, so musicians as varied as Jamie McDougall, Ricky Ross and Karine Polwart will feature on some legs, as will a theatre contingent including David Greig and Gerda Stevenson, a veritable library of authors including James Robertson, Janice Galloway, Sara Sheridan and Aonghas MacNeacail and visual artists such as Sandy Moffat and Will McLean. Meanwhile, the young Turks at National Collective are running a pan-Scotland Yestival mixing their now familiar brand of music, literature, and politics. They have brought vibrancy and fun to the debate, reaching out and refreshing the parts long disengaged from formal politics.

But the National Collective cannot count the celebrated composer James MacMillan amongst its growing fanbase. He, too, has ventured into print, somewhat perversely you might think for a man who suggests that he is "keen to keep his views private" on the referendum debate. He considers the National Collective to be "young, shouty and completely unquestioning", a view he has apparently formed from its website rather than personal experience. The other night I listened to one of the collective's number at a public meeting who was economically highly literate, self effacing, and entirely non-confrontational.

But each, as they say, to their own. More dispiriting was Mr MacMillan's dismissal of their poetry as "risible and thin … light on nuance and subtlety." That, I guess is a matter of subjective opinion, but I would have expected more generosity of spirit from one of Scotland's giant talents. Frankly out of order was his conflation of today's intermingling of arts and politics with historical references to Hugh MacDiarmid's alleged flirtation with fascism almost 100 ago: "Youthful idealism or patriotism can sometimes give succour to dark, lurking forces in our collective psyche".

Alternatively, youthful idealism can remind us where we emerge when that quality is swamped by the cynicism and hypocrisy of some elements of mainstream politics. Idealism, youthful and otherwise, is the godparent of a psyche that prefers celebration of virtues over excavation of vices. And whether you believe patriotism to be a handy hiding place for scoundrels or merely a vigorously expressed love of your native land, it is hardly inter-changeable with idealism. But entry into this fascinating debate is welcome from any quarter, most especially from a creative community that collectively nourishes Scotland's soul.

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