Sunday, September 07, 2014

Scottish Independence and Culture

With today's headlines seeing the "Yes" campaign ahead in the polls for Scottish independence for the first time, I wanted to think about what  a "yes" vote might do for culture. Apart from a few threats about how an independent Scotland would "lose" the BBC, I've not seen much on the subject - though I'm sure some have been considering it.

For it strikes me more and more that "culture" is sometimes what defines our togetherness, as well as our separation. The Scottish Commonwealth Games ceremony had more in common with the closing ceremony of the London Olympics than with Danny Boyle's mostly successful re-imagining of the opening ceremony: and music lovers must have been squirming in their seats at Susan Boyle, Rod Stewart and the Proclaimers, all, I hasten to add, artist's with a time and a place in the national (Scottish/UK) conversation, but hardly symbols of an independent future.

This year's Booker prize's belated opening up to Americans means that it is now open to all English language novels, so even if an independent Scotland wasn't in the Commonwealth there would still be eligibility.  Ali Smith is on this year's longlist (shortlist released on Tuesday) and must have a good chance of winning it, if this not year, at some point. Our preeminent novelist has a Scottish name -  Ian McEwan - yet his Englishness is without doubt. Meanwhile, John Burnside, another Scot, won this year's Edge Hill prize for short story collections. British poetry has for some time had an emphasis from the Celtic fringes, with our poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the poetry editors at Cape and Picador, Robin Robertson and Don Paterson, also being Scottish. Our most successful novelist J.K. Rowling chooses to live in Edinburgh, the first city to become a UNESCO City of Literature. You could argue that an independent Scotland might have to create some kind of cultural shift, with rather than the best  or most ambitious of their writers heading down on the East Coast Mainline to a London publishing industry which has a strong Scottish flavour, that a new Scotland would see its literary heritage as an increasingly important competitive advantage, as exportable as whiskey.

English literature has more than its fair share of Scots (and Irish, and Welsh) writers under its banner - only susceptible to a murmuring of discontent when the language of those outer provinces strays too close to its roots (London moaned about the dialect heavy James Kelman winning the Booker, but not the more accessible Roddy Doyle.) If Hollywood Scottishness has provided a name for a certain kind of breastbeating patriotism through Mel Gibson's entertaining, if historically dubious, "Braveheart", I suspect that most people in their forties - have a more nuanced idea of Scotland based upon a different set of cultural references, with Clare Grogan, pin up girl of Altered Images and "Gregory's Girl" our favoured Scottish archetype.

It seems to me that Scottish culture flourished remarkably during the mad and bad Thatcher years. The list of Scottish post-punk and new wave bands is not only impressive but would coincide in many places with a list of my favourite bands from anywhere. Altered Images, Primal Scream, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Mogwai, Cocteau Twins, Simple Minds, Belle and Sebastian and Jesus and Mary Chain take up a disproportionate part of my record collection. None of which, it has to be said, sound remotely bagpipe-Scottish - which always makes me wonder about the distinction between a culturally backward looking mainstream and a forward thinking youth. Which one will an independent Scotland fall for?

Elvis Presley made his only stop in the UK in Scotland, on a flight back from Germany. Yet rock and roll embedded it quite strongly in the Scottish psyche, as did punk and house music during later periods. I suspect distance from London enables the building of new scenes which may have more time to embed than in other cities. Though the music, television and film businesses, if they have a British presence will still tend to be in the South East, Scotland's publishing houses remain; and its Edinburgh festival and fringe are in combination the only time that the luvvies decamp from the South Bank. Our comic heritage - Beano and Dandy - come from little Dundee, and that history has surely bleached into the number of graphic novel writers and games designers and developers who have come from Scotland.

In these many ways we see that Scotland is culturally both independent and interdependent with London in particular.

In a dependent nation or region whatever attempts there are to create a national cultural conversation - through a "national" theatre or "publishing programme" fall a little flat because of the contradictions of history. That most Welsh of poets, Dylan Thomas, sounds so English in his voice that a contemporary listener can almost feel cheated.

I suspect in a globalised world, Scottish culture may well have started to suffer in the same way as its football; starved of investment, isolated, and possibly seeing the best of its talent leave, but also begin to lose an independent identity. We are a generation or two moved on; where it is the TV talent show the X Factor which soundtracks family Saturday nights. Deep-rooted traditions in church and union club are echoes from older generations.

Yesterday I found myself at the Manchester Spanish festival in Albert Square, following a week in Amsterdam. It helped me stave off the moment of being immersed in being English or British again. Language is part of this of course, but so it cultural context. The Spanish singer's words might have been new to me, but at least one of his tune's was "Loch Lomond" which is about as traditionally Scottish as you can get. I'm not sure where the Scottishness is in "Never Understand" or "I Travel" or "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops" or "Stars of track and field" but I'm sure their uniqueness comes from being in a culture that is looking forward not backwards.

The reality of small countries is that they can thrive - and will thrive - as long as they are not broken on the back of a threatening neighbour (Russia in Ukraine), or in thrall to a stateless global capitalism (Iceland, Ireland) - but that their very smallness means that have to reach out in many ways much more than they did as a region of a bigger country. In other words I can imagine an independent Scotland to become a cultural powerhouse in some ways, attracting artists, writers and musicians from elsewhere in the world, as much by its English language, its hospitable cities and countryside, and its relative proximities and distances - far enough and near enough to  London, but also linked through history and family and culture to the worldwide diaspora of Scots.

On a recent trip to Finland, I attended an exhibition of their most famous export, Tove Janssen, creator of the Moomins; there was both the international familiarity of her creations, but also their somewhat uniquely Finnish strangeness. And she was a Swedish speaker. Culture, in other words, is multi-layered, and our religious, work and community backgrounds inform it as much as our education, tastes and media. The Celtic revival in Ireland was a precursor to Irish independence. I'm not sure I've seen such a similarly unique Scottishness now, yet I think in many ways this is because Scottish culture is such an integral part of British culture, that unpicking where Arthur Conan Doyle's Scottishness ends and Sherlock Holmes' Englishness begins is an impossible task.

A close "No" vote will almost certainly have ramifications, even if not as cataclysmic as a "Yes" vote - yet I think culture may well be more interesting if the latter takes place. London may have time for Edinburgh in ways that it rarely has for Birmingham or Newcastle or Manchester, but if its in a different country, I think the rump of the UK will begin to feel the loss quite quickly. Culture, after all, can be the bit of a country that stays through generations of political impotence; so given political potency via an independent Scotland I imagine a revived cultural confidence.

Britain will be the loser of course, culturally as well as in other ways, yet you have to wonder how we got in this mess? Cameron, Brown and Blair, our last three Prime Ministers, are all Scots by origin or birth, after all. Did their dual identities mean they were oblivious to what was happening - or was their subservience to a hated economic Thatcherism so great as to deafen out other voices? Scotland isn't without its own incompetences of course: Edinburgh that city of architects and engineers had the massive cost overruns of their parliament, the delayed and devalued implementation of their tram system, and of course, the disaster - far from traditional prudence - of Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland's financial overreach. Yet I can't help thinking, just as Europe feels a richer tapestry for the interwoven histories and futures of its languages and peoples which are steadfastly strong - whatever UKIP says - in a Eurozone of free movement of people and a usually shared currency, that our own "union" of states, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish has - though not without difficulties - allowed for an enrichment. Whatever the results in a fortnight - our joint futures are enhanced by our differences, not as in some parts of the world, reduced by them. Culture - that so often misused word - is undoubtedly at the heart of whatever answer we need to start composing.

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