Scotland stands to gain major cultural benefits from self-rule – and no one knows this better than the artists themselves, writes Joan McAlpine
Brian Monteith wrote in yesterday’s Scotsman that there is more to independence than number crunching, and we must never forget the cultural dimension. I could not agree more, though it’s probably the only common ground we share.
The overwhelming view of the public at large, and those in the creative sector, is that independence would benefit culture. There’s nothing wrong with a newspaper columnist pushing against the prevailing orthodoxy. But in arguing the opposite, Brian plays to a shrinking audience.
A Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times newspaper last week found that 64 per cent of those asked thought Scotland’s culture would benefit from independence, while only 9 per cent shared Brian’s view that it would have a negative effect. Perhaps this is because they also believe that joining the family of nations will boost our self-esteem, and a thousand flowers will bloom. Three times as many (59 per cent) say it would be good for Scottish confidence rather than bad (19 per cent).
Significantly, many of the most outspoken supporters of Scotland resuming its place in the family of nations are global players who know what success looks like – it comes from self-esteem and knowing who you are. A long list of prominent Scottish cultural figures – including Sean Connery, Gerald Butler, Mark Millar, Liz Lochhead, Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, Peter Mullen, David Greig and Alison Kennedy – have made positive noises about the benefits independence would bring. And many also recognise the importance of diaspora in a globalised world. The concept of cultural identity is no longer confined to borders – and here Scotland is at a considerable advantage because of the millions of people around the world who have an affinity with us.
Some are pragmatic. The actor Brian Cox has worked in Ireland and saw how tax breaks effectively built a film industry. A Dundonian, he has admired the way his home city produces so many computer games artists, but sees how it is hard to grow and nurture these businesses without effective economic levers.
When fellow Scots actor Alan Cumming endorsed the SNP on his blog last year, he spoke of the party having the right spirit for Scotland. He said: “They really believe that the arts is a core component of what makes Scotland great.” He praised bringing the Victorian and Albert to Dundee (hardly reflective of a “little Scotlander” attitude) and the international touring commitments of the National Theatre of Scotland, the establishment of Creative Scotland, and the possibilities opened up by a Scottish Digital Network.
Significantly, of all the areas he mentions it is the one controlled by the UK government, broadcasting, where little progress has been made. Cumming himself returns to Scotland this July to perform in the National Theatre of Scotland’s re-imagining of MacBeth (there will always be a place for Shakespeare, here, as in America which declared independence some years ago).
Meanwhile there is the capital investment in the newly refurbished National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Scotland as well as the opening last year of the Burns Birthplace Museum at Alloway and the new transport museum on the banks of the Clyde by the superstar architect Zaha Hadid.
This is happening now, under devolution. Which brings us to Brian’s very strange assertion that the establishment of Holyrood itself has been damaging for the arts. This viewpoint is so left-field that he should perhaps consider using it as the basis of his own stand-up fringe show. Previous Holyrood administrations, who set up the Youth Music Initiative in schools, would take issue with that surely. As would those who established the National Theatre of Scotland.
Since devolution, audiences for the arts, including the Edinburgh Festival have soared. An Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund has already spent £6 million supporting the costs of new productions, events or exhibitions which involve Scottish-based participants. And before Brian jumps in with accusations of parochialism, let’s not forget it was the SNP government who helped save Titian’s masterpiece Diana and Callisto, for the UK at a cost of £12m – even though it meant handing the sum over to the Duke of Sutherland, a name that is not exactly the toast of the party conference.
Returning to broadcasting, it is hard to see how London control benefits us, as Brian suggests. I have recently been campaigning with some young Scots for the retention of the new music show Introducing in Scotland – our only opt-out from Radio One. Per head of population, more people in Scotland have signed the online petitions to save this show than supported the successful Save Six Music campaign across the UK. It plays unsigned bands and has kick-started the careers of artists such as Biffy Clyro, Calvin Harris and Frightened Rabbit. But for the new controller of Radio One in London, upsetting audiences and talent far away from home was an easier cut to make; loyalty to the union never crossed his mind.
We live in an interdependent world, in which cultural institutions span borders. But to shine, we need to participate as equals. One only has to think of the Venice Biennale art show, where Scotland has had is own pavilion in recent years, giving a prestigious international platform to our most challenging contemporary talent such as Karla Black, Martin Boyce and Jim Lambie. Does anyone really believe Scotland’s reputation as a vibrant centre for visual art would be enhanced without an independent platform in Venice? Now imagine what we could achieve if that model was the norm right across the creative sector, as it will be when Scotland votes yes. Independence is itself an act of collective creativity, an assertion of hope. Perhaps that’s why one of our greatest artists, Edwin Morgan, wanted it to be his legacy.
• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the south of Scotland