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Back on the road for the referendum ... the return of the Bus Party

It was a road trip like no other.

In the middle of it: Ascherson, Storrar and McIlvanney
In the middle of it: Ascherson, Storrar and McIlvanney

In the final days before the 1997 devolution referendum, a constantly changing mix of artists, writers, poets and musicians shared a mini-bus on a 750-mile dash round Scotland to get the nation's democratic juices flowing with ideas, song and grown-up conversation free from politicians.

Driving through the night between stops in schools, community centres and churches, the fluid line-up called themselves the Bus Party.

Their aim was simple: to ask people what kind of country they wanted, and to urge them to reflect on that when they cast their vote.

Its members included author William McIlvanney, journalist Neal Ascherson, poet Douglas Dunn, and the small pipes virtuouso Fin Moore, who provided the soundtrack as their 15-seater rattled through the September countryside.

Now, with another referendum in view, the Bus Party is getting back on the road again.

Ascherson, part of the hardcore half-dozen who were there from start to finish in 1997, has agreed to take part, and Church of Scotland minister Will Storrar will again be organiser.

McIlvanney is helping launch the revival alongside Ascherson at the Wigtown Book Festival later this month, although a bad back will prevent him boarding the bus this time round.

He said: "I think it's a very good thing to do, especially since one of the things that haunts me about the whole process at the moment is the number of unanswered questions surrounding it.

"I don't know that Will or Neal have the answers to those, but maybe debating them with people can at least clarify to them how they feel.

"Folk say it's an emotional vote, but the emotion's the horse and the brain's the jockey, and I think the jockey's a wee bit confused at the moment."

In a departure from 1997, the Bus Party of 2014 will include feature two trips, not one.

A week-long spring warm-up will see the Bus Party travel from Wick to Wigtown, with a second leg replicating the 1997 route - Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and the Borders - scheduled for the final 100-hours before the independence ballot on September 18.

To head off jokes about being the Bus Pass Party, the old guard will also be joined by members of the Young Scotland Programme run by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland.

Storrar explained: "There's a small core that will go all the way, five or six of us including the driver and me, and then on every leg of the journey several people get on for a day and night or two, and several people get off.

"It's a wonderful repertory company of talent, of people who speak for themselves, but are deeply concerend to listen to their fellow Scots at this time.

"It's a celebration of Scotland at this moment in history as well as a conversation about the kind of country we want to live in.

"It's the haill clanjamfrie, as MacDiarmid would have said."

The original idea for the Bus Party was Ascherson's, who was inspired by the memory of a similar event in Germany in the 1960s led by the German novelist Gunter Grass.

"When we did this the last time it was quite touching," he said.

"People were astonished and then rather delighted to be asked what they thought, because politicans just come at election times and tell us what to do and what to think.

"The main thing is to give people a sense of courage really - that this is their choice and not just some political ramp.

"And also of course in this particular case, to say that the Yes option is not just about the SNP. You can say, vigorously, No to Alex Salmond, and yet vote Yes and it's very important to realise that."

Instead of more "grey debate" over baffling details, he said the Bus Party wanted to draw out the big issue of the referendum, asking people what kind of country they wanted.

"The Bus Party will be trying to say this is about something bigger. Nothing is certain about what happens after independence.

"Is it a gamble? Yes, to some extent, it is a gamble on a scale on which the choice for a Scottish Parliament was not.

"I always quote the Poles when they tried to get their independence back. They always said, Poland Yes, but what sort of Poland? I think that's the question.

"Yes to the general idea of Scotland, but we must get to a point where we can make the choice about what sort of Scotland we really want.

"And it looks as if that choice can only be made in independence, because the other options are not there."  

But he admits that, for the moment, the omens are not good for a Yes vote.

"The last time round we felt that public opinion really was with us, that people's minds were made up to vote for the devolution proposals.

"This time it's more complicated, partly because the proposal is huger even than the Scottish Parliament, and the grounds for doubt and hesitation are often much more respectable and honourable than perhaps they were in 1997.

"The tide of public option is extremely sluggish, but moving very very slowly. The Yes is rising. Maybe it won't rise enough."

Storrar, who is now Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, said the Bus Party was his contribution as a "disapora Scot" to the referendum, and although like many Bus Partygoers he personally wanted a Yes, all those willing to "think aloud" were welcome.

"Our question in the referendum is what kind of Scotland, Yes or No, do you want to live in?

"We're looking for writers, poets, singers, artists, commentators who will be reflective on that theme in their art, or in their thinking.

"The people on the bus - and I say this as a Church of Scotland minister - are not going to preach. It's not a partisan Bus Party.

"It's to foster the conversation. We will have people on both sides."

Lots of people, but no politicians, he adds.

"They're welcome in the audience, to take part like everyone else and be treated like a fellow citizen, but they won't be on the bus."

He hopes that, despite the referendum becoming increasingly acrimonious, the Bus Party can be a mobile oasis of civilised conversation.

"Some people might think things are too divided to have a kind of civil conversation that wouldn't be hijacked by politicians or campaigns, but we think, Yes or No, it's still very important for us to take this opportunity.

"Scotland has an amazing opportunity. We have now a  year in a non-violent context to talk about the kind of country we want to be. I think it's an extraordinary, rare opportunity in history to do that.

"We want to involve everyone in a civic cultural conversation on the kind of Scotland we want to live in - that is the most fundamental question for people voting No or Yes."

As to the other crunch question for the Bus Party - transport - he's open to offers.

"Someone very kindly leant us a bus in 1997. The Bus Party runs on goodwill and pro bono contributions. If someone wants to lend us a roadworthy insured bus we'd be delighted."

The Bus Party relaunch is at the Wigtown Book Festival on Saturday 28 September at 3pm.

www.facebook.com/busparty2014

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