JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.6.13
TUESDAY MORNING, and I’m sitting in a quiet space beside the Traverse Theatre box office, waiting to record an interview with an actor who’s writing a dissertation about the relationship between Scottish culture and the independence debate. “I’d have liked to include more voices from the “no” side,” he says, “but I’m really struggling to find many. A huge majority in the arts seem to be moving towards a “yes” vote, now.”
I pause, I think about it, and I realise that he’s right; among practising artists, it’s a long time since I heard anyone express a definite intention to vote “no”. The only exception that comes to mind is the playwright, artist and general genius John Byrne, who is so incensed by the Scottish Government’s blanket ban on smoking on stage that he refuses to consider voting “yes”. For the rest, the young National Collective group of artists and writers for independence seems to be recruiting new members by the hour; and almost all the main creative voices – from our national Makar Liz Lochhead to singer/musicians like Karine Polwart and Pat Kane – are either offering strong support to the “yes” campaign, or declaring themselves “don’t knows”.
In a Scotland where nearly 60% of those with an opinion say that they intend to vote “no”, in other words, the nation’s writers and artists seem increasingly to take a different view. Sceptical “no” campaigners might put this down to self-interest, of course, or to fear of online or actual bullying by militant nationalists; and it’s certainly true that the Scottish government has recently proved far more enthusiastic about flattering and funding the creative sector than its counterpart in London.
On the whole, though, it’s not my impression that people in the cultural sector are choosing “yes” out of fear, or short-term self-interest. Many of them are committed anti-nationalists with a long history of scepticism about the SNP, and with no intention of supporting the party in the future; many seem almost surprised by the strength of the “yes” choice they find themselves making. And it seems to me that there are two reasons for this shift, both well worth analysing.
The first lies in what seems to me – and to many other Scots with an interest in politics – like a slow-burning collapse of Westminster politics as a vehicle for real electoral choice. It’s a collapse that is passing almost unnoticed in the mainstream British media, where the outward forms of party politics continue much as usual.
Yet on every issue of major importance – from the need for “austerity” to the replacement of Trident – all three main Westminster parties are now singing from the same song-sheet, and offering no electoral alternative to that large section of the British people who are sceptical about the policies both of the Coalition, and of the Labour Party’s increasingly confused leadership. People involved in culture and the arts tend to be left-leaning, and are probably more inclined than the average citizen to notice this absence of a radical alternative, and to express their anger about it. And insofar as an independent Scotland seems to offer the chance of a new and more progressive political conversation, they are bound to be increasingly drawn to it.
The second reason is even more significant, and has to do with confidence. Throughout this campaign, in the absence of a progressive project for the UK to match the one that seemed possible in the 1990’s, the main aim of the “No” campaign has been to convince people that Scottish independence would be, for one reason or another, a disaster; that Scotland would be too small, too poor, too weak, too stripped of talent, too undefended, too unpensioned and too vulnerable without the protection of the United Kingdom, and that independence – about which we have very few “facts” – is too uncertain a project to be worth the risk.
And the truth is that that line of argument was always likely to anger those who spend their lives in Scotland’s creative sector, and to drive them towards the alternative. Scotland’s creative community is now a tremendously confident body of men and women, who – in the everyday detail of their work – know and understand the world-class achievement of Scottish writers, artists and musicians, over the last half-century, in reimagining their own culture, and in taking their place on the world stage. They understand, with the late great Joe Strummer, that the future really is unwritten, and that there are no “facts” about it; they know that how the future works out, after 2014, will not be for some politician to announce, but for all of us to determine and build.
If they vote “no” against Scottish independence, in other words, it will not be because they accept the fear-mongering rhetoric of the “no” campaign, but because they genuinely believe in the Union, and its creative potential. If they vote “yes”, it will be because they know beyond doubt that Scotland has the creative capacity to face up to its problems, to come to terms with its history, to deal with its conflicts, and to create a future worth having, if it chooses to do so. And there is no question that we would be enjoying a richer and more interesting referendum debate today, if more people in Scotland shared that confidence, and were willing to demand that those who indulge in the politics of fear should either offer a positive vision, or sling their hook.
There is no chance of that, of course; the politics of fear often works very well at the ballot box, as political history shows.
When it comes to building a society worth living in, though, fear-based politics is worse than useless. And that, in the end, is why those who want to live a creative life are increasingly turning away from a “no” campaign now so tainted by the sound of fear and negativity; and are beginning, like the wonderful Molly Bloom at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to say a breathless and startled “yes” – yes to change, yes to risk and possibility, and yes to the chance, at last, of moving on from the last three centuries of history, and beginning to make something new.