Listening to Scotland

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  By Peter Geoghegan
 
The 1965 German general election campaign was an enervating affair. Conservative Chancellor Ludwig Erhard was a stolid character. His Social Democratic counterpart, Willy Brandt, was livelier but wary of saying anything interesting least he be branded a ‘Communist’. So he played it safe – and boring.

  By Peter Geoghegan
 
The 1965 German general election campaign was an enervating affair. Conservative Chancellor Ludwig Erhard was a stolid character. His Social Democratic counterpart, Willy Brandt, was livelier but wary of saying anything interesting least he be branded a ‘Communist’. So he played it safe – and boring.

Gunter Grass, having lost patience with the stultifying public ‘debate’, decided to create his own alternative political forum. The novelist hired a bus, filled it with writers, dramatists and critics and proceeded to tour the towns and villages of provincial Germany. At every stop drink flowed, bands played, and people discussed politics, of every shape, size and disposition.

Fast forward to 1997: Neal Ascherson, one of our finest prose writers, watches in dread as another listless political campaign, this time for Scottish devolution, spluttered into life. ‘This threatened to be one more party-bound, lifeless exercise, conducted mostly by the same old faces mouthing the same old formulae on television,’ Ascherson later wrote.

Inspired by Grass Grass’s ‘Citizen’s Initiatives’, Ascherson recruited William McIllvanney and a host of other luminaries, got hold of a bus and embarked on a tour of Scotland. In the weeks running up to the referendum they travelled from Peebles to Buchan, Galashiels to Glasgow, calling for a Yes/Yes vote but, probably more importantly, facilitating debate and discussion.

The bus party is back this year. Starting at the Pulteney Centre in Wick on May 24, a mini-bus featuring playwright David Greig, musicians Mairi Campbell and Ricky Ross, writers Janice Galloway and Andrew Greig, and visual artists Sandy Moffat and Carolyn Scot and others will embark on eight-day, 16-date whistle-stop tour of Scotland.

Neal Ascheron will have a seat on the bus again. So, too, will the man ‘whose energy kept the group moving’ back in 1997, theologian and civic activist, William Storrar.

The difference between now and 2014 is that this time around the bus party will not be advocating an outcome on September 18. ‘Our modis operandi is listening rather than articulating a particular viewpoint,’ Storrar, now director of the Centre for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University, told me on the phone from the USA recently.

Whether you go along to the arts centre in the former mining town of Lochgelly, or to the Waterstones in Inverness, the format will be the same: performances from artists intermixed with conversation about what kind of Scotland people want to see. Participants will need to respect ground rules: speak personally, not on behalf of political campaigns; do not talk others down; and listen.

It has become a cliché to complain about a lack of debate in Scotland – or that what debate we have is poor and ill-informed – but that seems to me both unfair and inaccurate. In bars and cafes, taxis and restaurants, across Scotland I have overheard – and participated in – conversations about the referendum. Some have been shallow and fleeting, but others have been lengthy and in-depth.

The referendum is attracting a new generation of political activists, too. Whatever your views on the constitutional question, the sight of, say, the Radical Independence Campaign descending on Easterhouse for a mass canvas should raise the spirits.

The problem is that far from being disengaged by the referendum debate the mythical ‘ordinary voter’ is routinely denied a public platform to articulate their views. Take the Church of Scotland. The Kirk invested months listening to it members views on independence, which became a thoughtful report entitled ‘Imagining Scotland’s Future’. A shame, then, that when the church meets in Edinburgh on May 20 to discuss the referendum it will only be the hierarchy, and invited politicians, that have their voices heard.

The campaign is politicized – how could it not be. And too often it has been unnecessarily divisive. But the debate can also be convivial, constructive, and, the key one, fun.

Personally, the referendum has been a fantastic opportunity to find out more about the place I have called home for almost a decade. As part of a book I’m writing, I’ve had the chance to spend time with old Communists in Fife and the Irish in Coatbridge, visited distant isles and read reams of Scottish history. I have also thought a lot about the Scotland I live in, and the Scotland I would like to live in.

I am not the only one. 

This week, I participated in a fascinating ‘pop up forum’ on culture and the referendum at Edinburgh University. What struck more than the excellent contributions from the panel – my own witterings excepted! – was the quality of the remarks from the floor. The audience were engaged, interested and, crucially, ecumenical. Rather than taking speakers to task for their frank comments on this aspect of the Yes offering or that element of the No campaign, people asked deeper, more fundamental questions about how things worked – and could work – in Scotland. 

Everyone understands (or at least. should understand) that we will all have to live together come September 19. But that is not an excuse for closing down the debate. Quite the opposite, it is the strongest argument there is for more conversations, more listening, and (hopefully) more bus parties.