Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Great Train Race (Galashiels)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE GREAT TRAIN RACE at Galashiels Station Interchange, for the Scotsman 30.11.15.
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FOR ANYONE WHO loves trains, there’s no greater thrill than to be able to write the words “Galashiels station” again, 50 years on; and no better place than the new Galashiels Interchange to watch this timely revival by the Hawick-based Firebrand Company of Robert Dawson Scott’s 2013 Play, Pie And Pint hit, a love-song to the great British railway network of the late 19th century, and to the men who made it run.

The show tells the story of the great summer-of-1895 rivalry between the North British railway company, based in Edinburgh, and the racier and more glamorous Caledonian, based in Glasgow, which culminated in a fierce competition to achieve the shortest journey time from London to Aberdeen.

The story is presented in the style of a highly informative pantomime, with friendly Cammie of the Caledonian trying to whip up popular feeling against the more establishment-minded North British, represented by Waverley station clerk Norrie; there are boos and cheers, and – in Galashiels – loud roars of approval for a few special references to the railway history of the Borders.

Just occasionally, though, the writing soars to heights that temporarily still the laughter, including a fabulous description of the sheer drama and heroism of a working life on the footplate of a great locomotive. It’s an apparently light-touch show backed by an impressive depth of history and emotion; and with Simon Donaldson and Ali Watt delivering a pair of perfectly-matched performances as Cammie and Norrie, Richard Baron’s production emerges as an hour of pure celebration and pleasure – perhaps to be revived again, around the Borders, before too long.

Run completed.

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The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE for The Scotsman, 30.11.15
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4 stars ****

WHAT A STRANGE and mystical old beast is C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, first published in 1950. Full of echoes of mighty myths and narratives – from the closing scenes of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale to the story of the crucifixion itself – it belongs to a postwar moment when British establishment culture was more in love with itself than at any time before or since, and more convinced of its special role as the defender of precious values, always under threat from the forces of darkness.

So when Lewis’s four child heroes – exiled to an old country house as evacuees from bombed-out London – discover the magical new land of Narnia in the back of an old wardrobe, they bring with them not only the perpetual mischief and simmering sibling rivalries to be found in any family, but also an inescapable sense of destiny. And soon, they are leading the fight for the ordinary creatures of Narnia against the all too well-drawn tyranny of the horrible White Witch, which has poor creatures bullied into the service of the regime, their homes searched and ransacked, and disobedience punished by instant petrification, or worse.

All of this is perfectly captured in Theresa Haskins’s fine adaptation and Andrew Panton’s beautiful, flowing production, which sets the story firmly in its historical context, features a powerful new recorded score by Claire Mackenzie -including a series of impressive songs beautifully sung – and fends off any hint of self-righteous prissiness with four gorgeous, down-to-earth leading performances from Claire-Marie Seddon and Charlotte Miranda Smith as Lucy and Susan, and James Rottger and Cristian Ortega as Peter and Edmund.

It is irritating – particularly given the de luxe quality of a supporting cast that includes Gail Watson, John Kielty, Lewis Howden, Ben Onwukwe and Ewan Donald, with Pauline Knowles as the White Witch – to see any Lyceum show so meticulously re-creating the old linguistic power-structure that reduces the sound of a Scottish voice to a cue for patronising laughter; and this is not a show for those in search of the kind of traditional Christmas fun that involves audience participation, rude jokes, and lusty singalongs.

What it is, though, is a fine and intriguing children’s fantasy adventure, beautifully told; and with Becky Minto’s magical design and Simon Wilkinson’s superb lighting often conspiring to take the breath away, there’s finally no resisting this exquisitely realised show, the last in what has been, for the Lyceum, a mighty 50th anniversary year.

Until 3 January.

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Cinderella (Brunton Theatre)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CINDERELLA at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for The Scotsman, 30.11.15
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3 stars ***

OVER THE LAST 20 years, the Brunton Theatre has developed the delightful knack of creating unpretentious pantos, on a shoestring budget, that nonetheless often seem to do more to maintain the tradition and spirit of panto that all of the nation’s glitzier shows put together.

This year’s Cinderella, put together by regular writer-director Mark Cox and his team, is no exception. The show looks a bit rough-and-ready in ways that slightly more sensitive lighting could easily improve, the score is a pretty raucous selection of recent heart-on-sleeve hits, and the acting and singing is variable.

Yet there’s no denying the pure spirit of local panto that animates the whole show, as Cox’s script lays on the East Lothian jokes (with some very funny song lyrics), Derek McGhie makes a fine job of bonding with the audience as Buttons, and Richard Conlon and Mark McDonnell act up an absolute storm as a terrifically wicked and hideous pair of Ugly Sisters.

Like all the best pantos, this one wears mediaeval costume, but slips effortlessly through time; here, Cinderella’s domestic drudgery includes the nasty task of backing up he ugly sisters’ I-pads, and Prince Jamie’s journey around East Lothian in search of a bride is trending on Twitter (hashtag #jamieonajaunttaejoppa).

And by the time a wobbly but recognisable blow-up coach comes exploding out of the pumpkin, making a virtue of economic necessity, this jolly family show has us eating out of its hand; as the Musselburgh chorus of local schoolchildren dance their hearts out and act their socks off, from beginning to end.

Until 2 Jan

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A Great Barlinnie Journey Reaches The End Of The Road – For Now

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A GREAT BARLINNIE JOURNEY REACHES THE END OF THE ROAD – FOR NOW for The Scotsman magazine, 28.11.15.
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IT’S A COLD, BLUSTERY November night at Barlinnie, as an audience of twenty or thirty people trudge up through the walkways and courtyards of the old prison, towards a low, modest building known as the conference suite. This is a place which once had a grim reputation; but these days, Barlinnie is a much more upbeat institution, a short-stay prison where the emphasis is very much on education, rehabiltation, and ways of helping the men, once released, not to relapse once again into a life of crime.

Which is where we come in: because for the last three years – and in projects before that – the community arts team from the Citizens’ Theatre, in partnership with the Offender Learning programme at North Lanarkshire College, have been working hard at Barlinnie, with volunteer groups of prisoners, to encourage them to use drama as a way of gaining different perspectives on their lives, and imagining their way to a different possible future.

Over three years, there have been storytelling and design projects, playwriting workshops, and two shows – Man Up, performed in 2013, and last year’s Back Of The Bus. And tonight, the latest group of prisoners – with two professional actors, Joyce Falconer and Ian Bustard – will perform Tales From The Wagon, the last in the series, directed by the Citizens’ Elly Goodman, which emerges as a rough-and-ready but beautiful Christmas dream-play, with songs, about what happens when a van dropping off prisoners at institutions across Scotland becomes stranded in snow somewhere near Perth.

“The Citizens’ relationship with Barlinnie goes right back to the 1970’s, when Giles Havergal used to bring actors to work with the prisoners here,” says Neil Packham, the theatre’s Community Drama Director. “So we’re really going to miss this work – our 3 year funding from Creative Scotland’s Arts & Criminal Justice Fund is coming to an end, as the programme is wound up. But we really hope we’ll be able to continue this relationship in some form, given how successful this sustained programme has been.”

And there are three men also in the audience who couldn’t agree more; for since their release last year, Hugh Young, Archie Dickinson and John Reilly have come together to form their own theatre company, Street Cones; they were to be seen in Edinburgh last weekend, with fellow company members George and Neil, performing a powerful series of interactive monologues about prison life to accompany Summerhall’s 183 More Sleeps exhibition, curated by the Koestler Trust, which encourages art by offenders.

“This theatre work was so important to us when we were in Barlinnie that we just wanted to carry on with it,” says Hugh Young, “and we’re determined to do what we can to encourage people to confront issues like offending behaviour and substance abuse. At the moment, we’re working on a script that deals with the growing problem of “legal highs”, and we hope that will find an audience over the next year.”

And young James – a terrific natural comic performer, who plays the judge in Tales From The Wagon – agrees that working with the Citizens’ Company can change lives. “People say to me that I must have been on stage before,” he says, after the show. “But my life out there was rough, I didn’t get on well at school, and I just never had the chance.

“But now me and Billy here” – he introduces another cast member – “are writing scripts for Barlinnie Radio, as well as doing this. Our next one is called One Man And His Ned, and it’s about a spaceman on his way to Mars – but he’s got a ned with him. It’s really funny. And now we know that we can do all this, it really boosts our confidence – and that’s the first step, isn’t it, to making something better of your life.”

More information at http://www.streetcones.org, and http://citz.co.uk/take_part/prison_work/

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Sent from my iPhone

The Course Of True Love

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 28.11.15
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4 stars ****

THIS AUTUMN’S series of Play, Pie And Pint shows shared between Oran Mor and the Traverse is over now; but perhaps the Traverse should break the rules, and sign up a few extra performances of this last pre-panto show, a gorgeous and cheering brief rom-com by David Leddy of Fire Exit.

Leddy first made his reputation with beautifully-pitched site-specific shows like Susurrus and Sub Rosa; but the secret of his success has always been in the quality of the writing, and here he spins something strong, sad, witty and resonant out of a 45-minute dialogue between an excellent Louise Ludgate as Celia – the boss of a successful overseas development charity – and her junior manager Oliver, played with equal flair by Mark Prendergast.

The two have been attending a dinner, at “the world’s most expensive hotel”, with the sinister president of a small African country, who wants to make the charity an offer it can’t refuse; but when they retreat to Celia’s suite to consider their response, what emerges is a tough, funny and sometimes moving short play about the sheer difficulty of forming new relationships in a world full of fast-changing rules and assumptions about “appropriate” sexual behaviour, particularly between boss and employee.

And if the play’s political plot eventually takes a turn for the improbable, there’s no denying the sheer thrill of escape, as Celia and Oliver make their final bid for love and freedom; freedom not only from the president and his goons, but from a whole world of everyday pressures and expectations, that has kept them apart for much too long.

Final performance today.

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John McDonnell’s Little Red Book Misjudgment Lets Handbrake-Turn Chancellor Off The Hook – Column 27.11.15.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.11.15
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ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, this should not have been a good week for George Osborne. As he rose to make his autumn statement in the Commons on Wednesday, he was essentially about to add to his “omnishambles” budget of 2012 the “hand-brake turn” autumn statement of 2015; his plan was to ditch his crushingly unpopular decision to cut tax credits for low-income working households, and – in the aftermath of the Paris attacks – to abandon the forthcoming round of cuts in police spending, while still claiming that £12 billion a year could be cut from the welfare budget by 2020.

And if all this erratic road-work made his handling of the economy seem a shade like a Bullingdon Club night out, he had an excuse at the ready, albeit a fragile one. The Office for Budget Responsibility, he would say, had identified an additional £23 billion available for spending over the five years of the current parliament, to 2020; and although it amounts to little more than one-half of one per cent of all UK government spending over that period, the figure, totalled over five years, would sound impressive enough enough to spare the Chancellor’s blushes.

It was a seat-of-the-pants kind of plan, in other words, put together since the defeat of the tax credit proposals in the House of Lords last month; and the Chancellor must have been bracing himself for the kinds of u-turn headlines he did indeed get, in the early editions of some newspapers – the Telegraph’s funereal “The End of Austerity”, and the Mail’s “What Happened To Austerity?”.

Yet just at the moment of maximum political danger, for George Osborne and the Tory front bench, salvation appeared, in the shape of a dire tactical misjudgment by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, tasked with replying to the statement. For instead of focussing ruthlessly on the Chancellor’s spectacular policy reversals and missed targets – and on the generally poor quality of the OBR’s recent forecasting – John McDonnell started waving a copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book, in a visual juxtaposition of left-wing Labour poltician and handbook for communist tyranny that could hardly have been less fortunate, from an image-making point of view.

Mr. McDonnell was trying, of course, to make a perfectly valid point about the Chancellor’s bizarre ideologically-driven conviction that it is OK for the communist government of the People’s Republic of China effectively to own large parts of Britain’s infrastructure, but not OK for the British government and people to own it.

In the course of making that point, though, the Shadow Chancellor not only flourished the book but read from it, and then chucked it towards the Chancellor, all but guaranteeing that his familiarity with the Little Red Book – and not George Osborne’s litany of economic disarray and misjudgment – would become the story of the hour. “Ooh look,” said the Chancellor, seizing the moment like the sharp debater he is, “it’s his own personal signed copy.”

Now of course it is infuriating for Labour supporters to see such a relatively minor incident blown up into a smokescreen to cover the Chancellor’s embarrassment; but the truth is that not offering such hostages to fortune is one of the first rules of successful political leadership, and one that John McDonnell comprehensively broke on Wednesday. After George Osborne went so far as to describe cuts in the UK government’s arts budget as “a false economy” – echoing an argument the Scottish Government has been making for the last five years, while Osborne slashed arts spending south of the Border – the political goal was wide open, for any opposition worth the name.

Almost every public spending cut George Osborne has ever proposed, after all, from the winding-down of the Sure Start scheme to this week’s slashing of preventive public health services delivered by local authorities, has been a “false economy”, the kind of disinvestment in people, services and communities that always creates greater social costs down the line. All John McDonnell needed to do was to point out that truth, bemoan the suffering that has been caused by George Osborne’s extremely slow – and far from complete – getting of wisdom on these matters, and sit down, to roars of approval from most on the opposition benches.

Instead, though, some imp of mischief made him think of Chairman Mao; and it’a hard not to feel that his gaffe is in some way a consequence of the current truly shocking disarray in the parliamentary Labour Party, where the leader can barely open his mouth, either in public or in private, without being briefed against by kind of Blairite MP’s who clearly feel that while their friends are in the offices of the right-wing press, their enemies are elsewhere on their own party benches. Whoever is most at fault, in other words, the truth is that the Labour Party at Westminster is currently in highly emotional meltdown, divided from top to bottom along the deepest and most bitter faultline in modern western politics; and is therefore all but unable to oppose a Chancellor whose economic policy looks increasingly chaotic, and bereft of real justification for the human damage it undoubtedly causes.

Under these circumstances, finally, a heavy burden falls on the SNP at Westminster – still relatively unified, and able to claim both substantial experience of government and high levels of popular support – to provide an alternative centre-left voice that is both more moderate and more credible than that of the current Labour leadership.

And it’s striking that even as Nicola Sturgeon’s administration in Scotland faces increasingly sharp questions about its record in government, and its plans for making use of Scotland’s imminent new tax powers, the First Minister’s stock at Westminster continues to rise; perhaps because she now fills such an obvious gap in the UK political landscape where a canny, sensible and electable leader of the Labour Party should be – the kind of centre-left Labour leader Nicola Sturgeon herself might have been, if British political history had worked out differently; and the kind who understands that you never get anywhere in the politics of this island by waving a little red book, and making yourself seem like even more of an ideological extremist than the Chancellor himself.

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Change At Dundee Rep

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHANGE AT DUNDEE REP for The Scotsman magazine, 21.11.15.
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THE TRADITION OF ARTISTIC LEADERSHIP goes back a long way, at Dundee Rep. In the 1970’s, the theatre’s artistic director was the writer, actor and director Stephen MacDonald, who went on to run the Lyceum in Edinburgh. And his successors have included the veteran actor-manager Robert Robertson, two inspired producer-directors – Hamish Glen and James Brining, now in charge of the Belgrade, Coventry and the West Yorkshire Playhouse respectively – and the acclaimed former Traverse boss Philip Howard, who became chief executive in 2012, sharing the artistic directorship of the theatre ensemble with Jemima Levick.

Today, though – if you wander up Tay Street to the Rep’s handsome modern building, opened in 1982 – you’ll find that the man in charge is top theatre executive Nick Parr, who left his previous job as Commercial Director at the King’s and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh to become Dundee’s chief executive earlier this year, after Philip Howard moved on to concentrate on directing and touring in Scotland.

“I know that people often groan when they hear about this kind of change,” says Parr, “because they feel that an artistic organisation should be led by a practising artist. And actually, I have a lot of sympathy with that view.

“I do think, though, that boards have to think through what’s best for any organisation at a particular moment, and I think they’ve made the right decision for Dundee Rep at this stage. The Rep is a particularly complex producing organisation – not only one of Scotland’s top producing theatres with its own unique acting ensemble, but the home of Scottish Dance Theatre and a huge range of community work; and I think I’m the first chief executive of this company who’s really been able to focus equally on the dance and theatre aspects of the company, rather than trying to run the whole show with one hand, while also being artistic director of the theatre company with the other.”

And Anne Bonnar of the theatre consultants Bonnar Keenlyside, who advised on the changes at Dundee Rep, agrees. “I think the key point about Dundee Rep is that the organisation has just outgrown the model laid down by Hamish Glen I the late 1990’s. In particular, Scottish Dance Theatre, now directed by Fleur Darkin, has grown to become a leading international company in its own right, rather than a junior partner. So it seemed right, for now, to set up a different structure, with a chief executive for the organisation as a whole, working closely with powerful artistic directors of the two producing companies, Jemima Levick and Fleur Darkin.

“And don’t get me wrong,” adds Bonnar, “I’m absolutely in favour of artistic leadership of arts organisations as a general rule. I was brought up at the Citizens’ Theatre in the early 80’s, so I was trained by Giles Havergal, who was the artistic director par excellence – a practising actor, writer and director himself, but also a superb theatre boss. So it’s not that I want to see some kind of triumph of the uber-administrators – and if you look around the theatre scene at the moment, you can see that the artistic-director-led model has proved much more resilient than some thought it would, 20 years ago. In
Scotland, we’ve got PItlochry and the Citizens’ at the moment – just to give two examples – both being led by artistic directors, exactly the kind of practising artists who can subsume their creative “selfish gene” into the work of a whole organisation; and Vicky Featherstone is another great example, a superb founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Above all, though, I think the key to success for any arts organisation is to be flexible and to respond to change. And the worst thing that can happen is for any management and staffing structure to become set in stone. Because ultimately what matters is the art, and the structure has to serve that, no matter what.”

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John Gabriel Barclay

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on JOHN GABRIEL BARCLAY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 21.11.15
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3 stars ***

A SHOUT OUT to all those who care about the Scots tongue; for today marks the final lunchtime performance of an extraordinary experiment in archaic but forceful Scots speech, built around the spine of Ibsen’s 1896 drama John Gabriel Borkman. Ibsen’s theme – reflected in the name John Carnegie gives to his 55-minute adaptation – is the fate of a banker who has speculated with his depositors’ money and lost, spreading ruin through the community. Now, bankrupt and disgraced, he paces alone in the upper room of his house, while his embittered wife Gertrude rages silently below, his son Edward tries to fight off the demands of his vengeful mother, and his former love – Gertrude’s wealthy sister Ellen – arrives with her own set of deathbed demands.

Carnegie’s play is always as much an exercise as a drama in its own right, set in the early 20th century, and therefore barely able to achieve any resonance with more recent banking disasters; it’s also full of debatable linguistic decisions, preferring to revive an archaic-sounding old Scots, rather than invent a new one.

The play boasts a scintillating quartet of performances, though, notably from Isabella Jarrett as Gertrude, and the wonderful Maureen Beattie as a passionate and sensual Ellen, with Peter Kelly in sinister form as John Gabriel himself. And there are moments when Carnegie’s production captures the full poetic weight of late Ibsen, and his wild, dream-like imagination; not least during John Gabriel’s final walk into the snow, with the two women whose lives he has shaped and blighted pursuing him all the way, like the fates or furies they are.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

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King Charles III

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KING CHARLES III at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 21.11.15
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4 stars ****

THEY SAY THAT people often dream about the Queen; but Mike Bartlett’s strange, dark and playful new constitutional drama – premiered at the Almeida 18 months ago, to an ecstatic response – is something more like a playwright’s dream-cum-nightmare about the eventual accession of Prince Charles, who celebrated his 67th birthday last weekend.

In a bleak semi-circular space like a Shakespearean castle keep, we see Robert Powell as Charles take on the role of king at his mother’s death, a few years hence; and almost immediately plunge Britain’s unwritten constitution into chaos, as he flatly refuses to sign a bill, already duly passed by both Houses of Parliament, that restricts press freedom in order to protect personal privacy. Within weeks, he has commanded the dissolution of parliament and provoked riots in the streets, while the Labour Prime Minister and the more pragmatic members of the royal household – led by Prince William and his ruthlessly ambitious wife – stand around aghast, and beg him to follow the example set by his mother, who “always signed”, no matter what bill was put before her.

All of this is conveyed in a theatrical style that ranges from the daring to the silly, as the cast of 12 enter singing a requiem, and launch into a tragi-comedy that both adopts and parodies the style of Shakespeare’s history plays, with most of the dialogue written in rough iambic pentameters, frequent verbal echoes of Shakespearean scenes, and a special appearance by the ghost of Diana, who cunningly ramps up the conflict by telling both Charles and William that they will be “the greatest king ever”. Robert Powell as the king, Tim Treloar as the Prime Minister, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as William and Kate, and Richard Glaves as a thoroughly enjoyable Harry – madly in love with radical art student Jess – all navigate the choppy waters of Bartlett’s bold experiment with terrific flair.

And if Bartlett sometimes displays a bit of a political cloth ear – for example conjuring up the kind of proletarian Labour Prime Minister we no longer have – he is still spot on in his portrayal of the ruthless survival instinct, learned at the Queen’s knee, that finally compels William both to confront his father, and to demand that his brother knuckle under to his royal destiny. The play is often a little daft, but always interesting and timely; and if you see it, you’ll find you have plenty to argue about on the way home – notably what should happen to the ancient institution the Queen has nurtured with such care, once she is gone.

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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The Case For Scottish Independence Is Not Dead: But It Does Need Remaking – Column 20.11.15

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 20.11.15
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THE FIRST MINISTER celebrates her first anniversary in the job, following Alex Salmond’s post-referendum resignation; and her celebration gift, from former Salmond policy advisor Alex Bell, is a blazing piece of polemic pronouncing the case for Scottish independence “dead” – at least as it was argued by the SNP between the publication of their White Paper, Scotland’s Future, in November in 2013, and the referendum on 18 September last year.

His words are seized upon, of course, by a triumphant Unionist lobby led by Murdo Fraser for the Tories, who speculates that the Union is possibly now safer than it has been for a long while. Alex Bell’s argument is essentially that the White Paper was always optimistic, and has now been overtaken by events, notably the spectacular slump in the global oil price. He does, though, use the word “deluded”, to describe the SNP’s current stance; and goes on to accuse the party of “dishonesty” in taking an anti-austerity line, when it has no financially credible alternative to offer in an independent Scotland.

Now it’s unfortunate, in a way, that Bell’s emotive language – hell obviously has no fury like a former advisor – obscures the common sense of most of his argument. The idea that the SNP is being dishonest in opposing George Osborne’s current austerity policies is an obvious red herring, given that Scotland remains part of a UK which could well afford not to impose such cuts.

When it comes to the case for independence, though, Bell is clearly right that the Scotland’s Future white paper was an optimistic document at best, that its obvious weaknesses in areas such as currency options represented a major reason for the ultimate defeat of the “Yes” campaign, and that it is now out of date. And the most important question arising is surely the one about how any sensible citizen who cares about Scotland’s future should respond to this state of affairs; starting with the truth that for all the merit of Bell’s argument, news of the “death” of the case for independence may have been slightly exaggerated.

In the first place, the UK’s current party of government remains overwhelmingly unpopular in Scotland; and the long grind of being governed by a party comprehensively rejected by Scottish voters has never done anything other than drive up support for independence, in the long term.

Then secondly, the meltdown in the UK’s main opposition party is growing more profound by the hour. Nicola Sturgeon is not in an enviable position, as she tries to navigate a path between the wave of “war fever” now sweeping Westminster, and the traditional anti-bombing stance of her own party. The Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, though, is in an intolerable situation, as his attempts to inject some rationality and respect for the rule of law into the discussion are caricatured not only by his opponents but by many in his own party as evidence of his cowardice, treachery, and sympathy for terrorists. And the lack of a credible opposition to the Tories at Westminster is another factor that is hardly likely to increase Scottish enthusiasm for the Union.

Then finally, there is the question of the case for the Union itself; for there is now no disguising the glee with which the SNP’s opponents seize on any evidence of Scotland’s economic weakness, and on further proof that we are forever doomed to depend on the largesse of the UK’s economic “powerhouse” in the south-east – that is, on the tax take from the city of London, and from the property-bubble paradise (for some) that is London and its travel-to-work area.

For even if this is true, it represents an image of our national future so unattractive that it is bound to repel at least as many voters as it attracts. It is true that Scotland was driven into the Union by poverty, and that we remain there largely because of the fear of many voters that we still lack the wealth, expertise, ingenuity and clout to make it on our own. In an age of popular democracy, though, it is surely both dangerous and destructive for pro-Union politicians to depend on an argument so relentlessly negative, insulting and depressing; and therefore, incidentally, so vulnerable to any future upturn in Scotland’s economic fortunes.

The SNP, though, should also acknowledge that the argument from fear is a powerful one; and that if they want to defeat it, they must start work now on preparing a vision of a future Scotland that is not just a little better than the White Paper of two years ago, but in a completely different league for clarity of thought and quality of arguments. That the SNP now has an opportunity to raise its policy-making game in this way is obvious. With a dominant position in the Scottish parliament, a popular leader, a divided opposition, and a new mass membership all paying into the party’s coffers, it has the time and resources to set up one or more new think tanks, or other projects, to develop policy for a viable Scottish future, to rethink the economic arguments, and – perhaps most importantly of all – to demonstrate how Scotland can move from its past as a coal, oil and gas-producing industrial nation, to its eminently possible future as what one independent expert called “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”.

Since she came to power a year ago, Nicola Sturgeon gives a strong impression of having become immersed in the day-to-day detail of government, the decisions, the public appearances, the demands of the hour. But in a Britain on the slide towards an ever more reactionary future – in a world darkened by the politics of escalating violence – much more than that is now required. We need a new, well-founded and credible prospectus for a better future. And if the SNP truly shares that aim, now is the time to prove it, with people, with resources, and with genuine support for a new phase of public debate – not so that Scotland will inevitably become independent, but so that if and when we do, we will know exactly why that step was necessary, where we are aiming, and how, and with what allies, we intend to try to get there.

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