Joyce McMillan: Path to change lined with desire

Community grassroots engagement was a key feature of the Yes campaign. Picture: Getty

Community grassroots engagement was a key feature of the Yes campaign. Picture: Getty

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It isn’t just the SNP who want a whole new way of doing things to end the old top-down centralism, writes Joyce McMillan

To Summerhall, last Monday night, to chair a big meeting on the future of Edinburgh’s cultural life, brought together by an ad hoc group of the city’s cultural movers and shakers – including Nick Barley, of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and Donald Smith, of the Scottish Storytelling Centre – to try to inject some grassroots creative thinking into the city council’s new cultural policy, promised for next year. More than 200 people turned up, from the leaders of the city’s top arts organisations – new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan was spotted in the crowd – to young artists setting out on their careers, local councillors, and representatives of potential audience members who face particular problems, including disability and poverty.

Instead of the anti-council festival of complaint that I had half-feared, though, what emerged from a long evening’s discussion was something more like an explosion of positive energy, and of sheer love for a beautiful, contradictory and often maddening capital city. When the architect Malcolm Fraser began to speak about the tremendous drama and beauty of Edinburgh’s cityscape, and to show a few pictures of it on screen, the crowd looked as if they might break into spontaneous applause; and when the journalist Neil Cooper described the vital creative energy that fizzes and sparks in a city’s small rough spaces – that has exploded from Edinburgh’s small spaces in the past, and is still doing so now, given half a chance – they seemed set to leap to their feet and cheer.

Problems were raised, of course: the ongoing struggle over Edinburgh’s hyper-stringent noise regulations which regularly shut down good-going music venues, the tendency for the huge August festivals to dominate perceptions of Edinburgh’s cultural life, the cost of space in a city with high property values, the sense of social exclusion that still tends to limit the audience for some of city’s major cultural institutions.

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Overall, though, the event seemed determined to live up to the positive impulse contained in its title, “Desire Lines”; in urban geography, desire lines are the little paths created by people themselves, which often take faster and easier routes than those imposed by top-down officialdom, and demonstrate how to use resources and effort most effectively. And although this event might well have taken exactly the same course if it had been held a year ago, it was striking how often, when any speaker struck a negative note about the potential for involving people in the shared life of their city or community, cultural or otherwise, others would refer back to the huge levels of engagement achieved during this year’s referendum campaign, as a sign that far from being apathetic or uninterested, people are eager to become involved in the kinds of transformation – of communities, of cities, of individual lives – in which creative arts can play a vital part.

At the very least, in other words, this meeting – among many others taking place around Scotland at the moment, as people move on from the Yes-No referendum question to look more closely at underlying issues – represents a powerful reminder of how much easier and more effective the work of government can be, at every level from the local to the supranational, if it works with the grain of grassroots desire and feeling, and tries to develop policy which reflects, and draws strength from, a genuine base of popular support.

There was a time, of course, when mass-membership political parties gave UK politics this kind of popular base; but the steady hollowing-out of our main parties – with the current striking exception of the SNP – has left us labouring with a top-down, manipulative model of how to achieve political power and success that makes real change ever more difficult to implement, and has left many voters profoundly cynical about the supposed political differences between the UK’s three leading parties. And while the old top-down methods can clearly still deliver results in the short term – as in the referendum No campaign itself – they are demonstrably useless in generating positive and workable solutions to the problems our society faces, from the massive global challenge of climate change, to the issues of health, care, employment and well-being that preoccupy those working in communities.

So although the referendum campaign was a profoundly divisive experience at some levels, it seems to me that everyone interested in the future of democracy – No and Yes voters alike – should nonetheless note the power unleashed in the Yes campaign by the opportunity to think positively about the future, and to begin to work with others in our communities to bring those wishes closer to reality. They should be aware, too, that that power of Yes is still present in Scottish life, although now finding expression in a range of different campaigns – for sustainable energy, or stronger local democracy, or, for that matter, a more enlightened year-round cultural policy for Scotland’s capital – that may prove less divisive, and more capable of generating an effective consensus.

Those on the No side of the question may find some reassurance, finally, in the knowledge that this Yes impulse is so clearly not just about the SNP. In truth, the presence in the Yes campaign of a huge range of social movements and three different political parties – the SNP, the Greens and the Scottish Socialists – was a key sign of its inclusiveness, and of the fact that it was as much about a quest for social justice, and for an end to the current politics of austerity, as it was about constitutional change; and the demise this week of the strange idea of a purely Yes-based electoral alliance for next year’s Westminster election is therefore both inevitable and healthy.

For as its opponents are never slow to point out, the SNP, as a party of power, has its own top-down and centralising tendencies. And if one legacy of this referendum year is a sense of grassroots energy and empowerment that not only inspires similar movements across the Border, and begins to shake the UK political establishment, but also sets a more energetic, radical and demanding agenda for our own local authorities and national government here in Scotland, then that will be an achievement to celebrate, in or out of our increasingly fractious United Kingdom.

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