HOW important are the voices of artists in the independence referendum?
This is already a sensitive issue. Last week a Scottish newspaper (not us) ran a story claiming Ewan McGregor, Billy Connolly, and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie were all firmly against independence. Not so, a pro-independence website quickly responded: all three appear ambivalent on the issue. Connolly, in particular, recently vowed to stay out of the debate altogether, so cannot accurately be described as a No supporter.
Should it matter either way? Yes and no. No, in the sense that it would be daft for anyone to decide how to vote based on what a particular actor, singer, playwright or novelist says. Yes, in the sense that such people’s opinions still carry weight (which is why we’re likely to see a lot of these arguments over the next few months).
This seems particularly true of the Yes campaign, whose launch this time last year saw Alan Cumming, Brian Cox, Liz Lochhead and Alan Bissett share a stage with Alex Salmond. Some mocked Salmond for this, but I don’t think it was about playing the celebrity card, as claimed (Bissett and Lochhead are known, but hardly celebrities). More likely it was a calculation that voting yes is a leap of imagination: something that artists understand and communicate well. The youthful and charismatic Bissett, for example, is as gifted a polemicist as he is a novelist, as those who have heard his poem Vote Britain will testify (even if they don’t agree with him).
Better Together’s strategy, broadly, has been to encourage fear of the unknown – effectively, to shut down imagination – hence its 500 pernickety questions about independence, to which the playwright David Greig offered this succinct response: “The answer to every question is: the Scottish people will decide.” Greig’s point: in the end a yes vote is not about resolving endless individual, theoretical policy questions but about a single point of principle – that this country should be trusted to govern itself.
In an age when all party politics is widely regarded with suspicion, and all policy claims treated with scepticism, the leap of imagination required to sign up to independence may be a daunting one – and one that perhaps no politician can inspire, even Salmond. But artists, lacking that baggage, might stand a chance.
That is if they want to, of course. Our best artists are contrary sorts, not easily co-opted into any cause. Their job is to ask complex questions, not conjure simple, inspiring answers. But in a debate that’s about identity as much as policy, their contributions are valuable, even crucial. «