Allan Massie: Threat to creativity in Scotland

The James Plays was a co-production with the National Theatre in London. Picture: Julie Bull
The James Plays was a co-production with the National Theatre in London. Picture: Julie Bull
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Backing independence is all very well, but the result could rebound on artists, musicians and writers in a new country, writes Allan Massie

A good many Scottish writers and artists of all kinds have come out in favour of independence. Fair enough, that’s what they want. If they were French, Italian or German they would doubtless describe themselves as “intellectuals”, even as “public intellectuals giving a lead to the nation”, but they are, mostly, sufficiently British to steer clear of the somewhat pretentious word.

This isn’t the only way in which they show themselves to be British as well as Scottish. A number of my fellow novelists who are eager to break the Union are nevertheless content to have at least some of their books, usually their most ambitious ones, published in London rather than in Edinburgh or Glasgow. They may – one or two of them to my knowledge do – have a Scottish editor at their London publisher, but this just goes to show how British it all is.

I don’t accuse them of hypocrisy in arguing for Scottish independence while benefiting from the deeper pockets of London publishers. They remind me of an old socialist farmer friend who sent his children to independent fee-paying schools and explained that he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice their future prospects to his own political principles.

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Of course, there are many Unionist artists too. Some have spoken out. Others have preferred to get on with their work. There’s an interesting article by Clare MacMillan in the new issue of Gramophone, which is itself the heir of the magazine founded by Compton Mackenzie.

It’s entitled Scottish Composers and the Referendum. Ms MacMillan, the daughter of our leading classical composer, James MacMillan – himself no enthusiast for independence – writes that composers “may display patriotic pride in their music but may also be sceptical about present secessionist claims”. She instances Edward McGuire, “classical composer and folk musician, whose orchestral work, Calgacus, is one of the only really outstanding works to involve bagpipes”. Hard to get more Scottish than that. Nevertheless Mr McGuire is a Unionist who says: “I see Scottish traditions as part of a British family of similar traditions. Scottish music, theatre and visual arts are all part of a fabric of British culture.” And so, one may add, is Scottish literature. Independence won’t change that. Scottish writers will continue to be published in London just as many of the best Irish ones are – almost a hundred years after the creation of the Irish Free State.

Actually it’s hard to see that independence would make any difference to the arts in Scotland. We already have a minister of culture, and all the instruments of public policy with regard to the support and financing of the arts are in the hands of the devolved Scottish Government and our local authorities. The devolved government alone decides how much money should be given to Creative Scotland (formerly the Scottish Arts Council). We already have our own National Theatre, National Opera, National Orchestras, National Galleries and National Museums, and responsibility for public support of these bodies rests, ultimately, with the Parliament and government in Edinburgh.

Likewise the numerous festivals throughout the land are supported by Creative Scotland, local authorities, commercial sponsors and of course the public. In short, where culture is concerned, Scotland is in reality independent even while we remain, happily, part of the United Kingdom with the security and opportunities this provides. It’s notable that the most ambitious theatrical venture in this year’s Edinburgh Festival – The James Plays – was a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National (British) Theatre in London.

Many assert that the rise in support for Scottish Nationalism has been “culture-led”. There is some truth in this. Writers and artists were among the founders of the SNP, and many were active first in the campaign for a Scottish Parliament and now in the present campaign for independence. Yet the assumption that there has been a great artistic revival in the last quarter-century is less tenable.

Certainly, while there has been an upsurge in energy, there is less evidence of higher quality. That’s the case with regard to literature – the only area in which I can make any claim to speaking with authority.

There were at least as many good Scottish poets and novelists 50 or 60 years ago as there are today; I would even say there may have been more then. How many Scottish writers today match the achievement of Eric Linklater, Neil Gunn, Muriel Spark, and Iain Crichton Smith – names plucked almost at random from a rich store? Even our finest living novelist William McIlvanney (who will, I’m sorry to say, vote Yes) published his first novels in the 1960s.

Would independence result in a new flowering? It’s possible; of course it’s possible. But it’s equally possible that, when the excitement dies down and reality bites, the reverse might be the case. That was the Irish experience. The so-called Celtic Renaissance, associated with Yeats, Synge, O’Casey, flourished in the years before independence, and withered after that was achieved. Admittedly an independent Scotland wouldn’t resemble De Valera’s Catholic republic with the severe clerically-imposed censorship that drove so many of the best Irish writers out of Ireland, but if the first two or three decades of independence prove to be a time of economic difficulty and consequent austerity, as seems quite possible, the outlook for the arts might well be bleak. Whenever cuts in public spending become necessary, the arts are an obvious target.

An English friend once questioned James Joyce about Irish independence. He replied: “Ireland is what she is and I am what I am because of the relations that have existed between Ireland and England. Why should I wish to change what has made me the man and the writer that I am?”

Likewise Scottish writers and artists are what we are, British (whether we like it or not) as well as Scottish, and nurtured in a Scotland that is part of the United Kingdom.Why should Scots wish to change the conditions that have made us what we are?