Why do the majority of Scotland’s artists support independence?

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  By Alan Bissett

Recently, I found myself on Newsnight Scotland taking part in a discussion about artists and the independence movement.

The item was prompted by two events: Alex Salmond inviting some of Scotland’s top writers to help word the SNP’s flagship White Paper on independence; and an article by the journalist Joyce Macmillan in The Scotsman, who has noticed a dearth of artists supporting the Union.

By Alan Bissett

Recently, I found myself on Newsnight Scotland taking part in a discussion about artists and the independence movement.

The item was prompted by two events: Alex Salmond inviting some of Scotland’s top writers to help word the SNP’s flagship White Paper on independence; and an article by the journalist Joyce Macmillan in The Scotsman, who has noticed a dearth of artists supporting the Union.

In response, the Better Together campaign has announced its own cultural response, headed up by the composer, Eddie McGuire.  With no disrespect to Mr McGuire, I can barely think of any of my fellow artists who will rush to join their campaign

The first question we should ask, then, is: why do the majority of Scotland’s artists support independence, when most creative types run a mile from ‘narrow’ nationalism?  It’s because the possibilities of independence excite the imagination.  The Union is a failing state and a stunted democracy, which exists primarily to wage war, buttress capitalism and maintain upper-class rule.

The very existence of an unelected chamber of hereditary peers is proof of this.  The rhetoric from the Better Together campaign, who want to protect this elitism, is backward-looking and negative, predicting an apocalyptic future for Scotland if we vote Yes.  It is no surprise that they even call themselves, privately, ‘Project Fear’.  Furthermore, British ‘national’ culture seems to consist these days of manufactured excitement about Royal weddings, babies and Jubilees. True artists are not easily fooled by the false narratives of the powerful.

Here in Scotland they are imagining a better social and economic future, an increased cultural confidence, awaiting us at the other side of independence.  They also don’t detect a xenophobic or ethnic strain to Scottish nationalism, unlike British nationalism – as expressed by the Conservatives, UKIP and the BNP – whereby imperialist might and suspicion of foreigners is symbolised with every flutter of the Union Jack.

For these reasons, most in the Scottish creative community believe that independence will release a renaissance in our literature, theatre, film, television and music, as we throw off the suffocating cultural effects of London dominance.

The other question to ask, however, is: does it matter what artists think anyway?  If you are unemployed or a fast-food worker on minimum wage or a lorry-driver or a cleaner, why should you care what a bunch of painters, actors and poets have to say?

I’d argue that it’s the job of artists, primarily, to think.  Artists are in the business of exercising their minds, daily, and can often see round the corner of society to what’s heading our way.
Scottish artists see only further domination and inequality within the Union, and greater social democracy and fairness with independence.

Another reason to pay heed is that Scottish artists have been proven right before.  Robert Burns himself decried the Act of Union, in his famous poem A Parcel O’ Rogues, realising, correctly, that Scotland had been betrayed by its ruling class for their personal gain (or, as he put it, “bought and sold for English gold”).

Two of our greatest 20th century poets Hugh  MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan believed in Scottish independence early on, MacDiarmid being among the first to equate it with the socialist struggle. After the rigged 1979 referendum on devolution, with Scotland left politically impotent, the artists picked up the slack. 

Novelists such as James Kelman, Alasdair Gray,  Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway; poets such as Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard; and painters like Alexander Moffat and Ken Currie were able to keep the Scottish  working-class imagination alive, in the face of Thatcherite oppression, and create cultural momentum which carried towards the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

A third reason to trust the artists is that they are not toeing a party line.  While all want independence, none fully support the SNP. Scottish culture is left-wing in inclination and a great many artists have socialist tendencies.

After independence, we will switch our attention from attacking Westminster to attacking the Scottish government, and Scottish capitalism, whichever forms those take, using our cultural weight to campaign for a stronger working- class voice in Holyrood.  None of us are risking our reputations, our hopes and our energies simply to help establish a new Scottish ruling-class.      

The comparison I made on Newsnight is that 2014 could be Scotland’s 1966, our greatest, historical moment of cultural triumph.  Imagine what it was like to be in London at that time: the youth rising up against a decrepit social order that still doffed the cap; music and attitudes. changing; civil rights on the march; the future seeming bright.

On the same Newsnight, Eddie McGuire could only offer doom- filled warnings about Greek-style collapse.  So much for inspiration!  If we do not have the hope of a better Scotland – a socialist Scotland – then we do not have anything.  Over the coming year, the nation’s artists will be dreaming that potential into being.

This article appears courtesy of the Scottish Socialist Voice