Edwin Morgan’s posthumous donation to the SNP fed into what can be seen as an ever growing momentum towards greater self-empowerment
THAT terrifying old volcano, Hugh MacDiarmid, once wrote a poem about an alternative, super-cosmopolitan Glasgow – where paperboys ran around with special evening editions titled Turkish Poet’s Abstruse New Song: Scottish Author’s Opinions. “And, holy snakes, I saw the edition sell like hotcakes!” Irony noted. But is it any likelier that a gay, Glaswegian, modernist-futurist poet would bequeath nearly £1 million to fund a campaign for Scottish independence in a coming referendum?
Even if you’d scripted it direct from Alex Salmond’s laptop, you couldn’t have a more resonant challenge to the artistic and creative classes of Scotland to put themselves on the line, than Edwin Morgan’s posthumous donation to the SNP. Morgan’s successor as the nation’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, has also recently declared her preference for an independence vote in the coming referendum. If these national exemplars of pluralism, diversity and experiment are willing to nail their reputations to the mast of a sovereign Scottish state...well, what better justification would any other creative type need?
Of course, the sound you’ll now hear is that of a thousand creatives scattering to the corners of their cafe-bars, Groucho Marxists to a man and woman, refusing to be part of any club that compels them to join. And quite rightly too. Just as Norman MacCaig asked that we “observe two minutes pandemonium” to mark the birth of MacDiarmid, we should expect only dissensus from any artistic community worth its name in Scotland.
As the chairman who bridged the gap between the old Scottish Arts Council and the new Creative Scotland, Richard Holloway’s parting shot was an essay titled “Creative Disloyalty”. In its closing words, Holloway asked for “vigilance in protecting the spiritual integrity of Scotland’s makers, including their ancient right to bite the hands that feed them...We will never forget Graham Greene’s admonition that disloyalty is the primary virtue of the artist. If we can all learn to live within that tension without trying to resolve it, then Scotland will have become a truly creative nation”.
Militant eclecticism is easy to find in Scotland’s existing cultural landscape – the near-random musical associations of Celtic Connections, the film and book festivals across our cities that sample primarily from the international circuit, never mind the long-standing global networks that feed into contemporary art, or the Edinburgh Festivals.
Even our new National Theatre of Scotland is more like a constitution than an institution – a generous theatrical process that insinuates itself into various aspects of Scottish life, rather than a company-in-a-building dedicated to curating a national canon of works. And when esteemed figures like the historian and diplomat Paul M. Scott decide to object to that very amorphousness, the response is to bring him into a discussion space with NTS stalwart David Greig, under the ambiguous headline “Staging the Nation”.
How much of national identity is a stage-act, a confidence trick, a community imagined from the footlights? And if so, does that matter, as long as the effect is to raise wellbeing and general happiness? Surf through the rapidly maturing Scottish cultural blogosphere, and you’ll find such questions being raised, countered, complexified, at a much quicker pace than the publication of unpurchased journals in arts-venue bookshops.
The tumult of Scottish culture, as it relates to the stern imperatives of national progress, is like the way play functions for complex mammals. Both are rehearsal spaces for possible futures; both are zones of experimentation that help sharpen our responses to challenges and trials.
No matter who actually coined (or used) the phrase, we have an understanding that Scotland’s political state is “a process, not an event”. Part of what keeps it processual is the unpredictable, unbiddable nature of Scottish arts and letters.
And yet, if it’s truly unpredictable and open, then it’s also possible that some figures – like Morgan and Lochhead – might well choose to arrest the beguiling flow of their art, and make a concrete public commitment to a political or constitutional option. The interesting question is who captures the value of those commitments – and how subtly.
In the SNP’s “impossible” electoral majority of earlier this year, one evident factor was the sophistication of its media and cultural strategy. Its use of endorsements from celebrities, artists and notable public figures wasn’t just about borrowing their high-wattage power. Much more important was the way they regularly told a story of changing their vote from Labour to SNP – a story draped with the emotive language of disillusion, regret, commitment and relief. On an overall level, this helped to legitimise the feelings of switch voters – already specified issue by issue, and demographic group by group, by the SNP’s Activate software.
Was this some fiendish, white-cat-stroking psychological masterplan, political marketers deploying tractable Scotterati like pieces on a chessboard? Some figures (the present writer included) have been on the independence bus for decades. But for some others – like actor Brian Cox, who has previously voiced Labour party political broadcasts – the moment of conversion was thrawn and deeply considered. Some, like writer Mark Miller and actor Alan Cumming, were complete surprises to the SNP, recording their own video tributes and giving them to the party.
So yes, cultural figures were one of the “verticals” – including fiscal-autonomy-loving businessmen, or farmers, or new-build homeowners – that were stacked up in favour of an SNP victory. Again, the idea that they were mere code in any party’s programming of the electoral mind would make the support of any “creatively disloyal” Scottish artist melt away like snow off a dyke. But there are signs that this support is coming up from the creative grassroots in any case, looking for a home in the next great political contest of the independence referendum.
Particularly indicative was a post-election article in a Sunday newspaper, who decided to commission pieces from five Scottish writers about the Union. Without apparent coordination or planning, four out of the five (Iain Banks, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway and David Greig) recapitulated the “Labour to SNP”/ “Union to Independence” narrative almost perfectly.
Yet, as one might expect from a page full of expert human observers, the dominant metaphor was complex and personal: that of sad but adult partners, ruefully accepting their rocky history and impending separation, hoping for less fractious and more constructive times ahead. There is something qualitative, specific and nuanced about these accounts that points towards the real power of Scottish arts in this coming referendum. It wouldn’t be hard to assemble a tick-list of prominent cultural Scots – say, Billy Connolly, Ewan McGregor, JK Rowling, Annie Lennox, Robbie Coltrane – whose previously-voiced discomforts with “nationalism”, Scottish or otherwise, might make them a target for recruitment in a “No/Pro-UK” campaign.
Yet would any of these figures, or others waiting in the sidelines, be willing to be used in a populist, headline-banner way to stand in the way of Scottish progress towards more self-empowerment? In my last incarnation as a political activist, in 1992, we formed a group with the unequivocal title of Artists for Independence – but which nevertheless expressed that desire in the form of a “multi-option referendum”. We figured, in our incorrigibly artistic way, that the only way to answer the question was to give the people a set of rich democratic options, and let them decide the future of their country.
It looks like we’re about to have the subtle democratic process we dreamed of 20 years ago. Within that framework, then as now, my argument would be for clear nation-state independence. But any creative, at some point, has to realise that there are deeper tendencies flooding through them and their work than they can consciously grasp. In his great poem introducing the Parliament, Edwin Morgan voices the people’s desire for our politicians to be “thinking persons, as open and adventurous as its architecture”. Artists should be intrinsically happy with the open and adventurous. But our task in this moment might be as much to keep profoundly blethering, telling stories, exploring stubborn details, wildly going over the score in all directions: a commitment to enrich imaginations, as much as imagine rich nations. And of course, hoping that all our editions, however abstruse, keep selling like hotcakes.
• Pat Kane writes on Scottish affairs at www.thoughtland.info. His latest book is Radical Animal: Innovation, Sustainability and Human Nature