Arts in Scotland have already reached an independent state of mind

Joyce McMillan explains why artists and writers at the Edinburgh Festival are not obsessing with the referendum question

At the Traverse Theatre (pictured), on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, you may be lucky enough to be one of the few thousand people who will see David Greig’s new play The Events, about one woman’s response to a sudden mass shooting in her quiet church community centre.

Some of the detail of the play is based on the Anders Breivik shooting in Norway in 2011; and The Events emerges as a serious, beautiful, and sometimes oddly humorous play about how we respond, in a modern liberal world, when we are confronted with an act of such evil.

Whither Scotland?In a series of articles this week we throw the spotlight on the Scottish independence referendum, to be held on 18 September 2018:

  • Tomorrow: Kenneth Roy criticises James Naughtie’s 
foreign assignment
north of the border.
  • On Thursday: Adam Ramsay finds the ignorance of the media about the constituency’s electoral history shows how out of touch the London bubble can be.
  • On Friday: John Kay unpicks the economic arguments around independence but says these are not the main reasons to vote Yes or No.
  • On Saturday: Andy Bevan asks what lessons we can learn from the experiences of Ireland and other Commonwealth countries.

And then, if you walk down the road to the Scottish Storytelling Centre at the Netherbow, you might be able, this weekend, to catch one of the last few performances of Alan Bissett’s show Ban This Filth!, in which this leading young Scottish writer makes a powerful one-hour monologue out of his encounter with the works of the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and asks some disturbing question about the world of violent and abusive misogynistic pornography now available to young men across the planet at the touch of a keyboard.

As it happens, both David Greig and Alan Bissett are politically engaged writers, energetically involved in Scotland’s public life; both are articulate supporters of the Yes campaign in next year’s independence referendum. Yet along with most of their contemporaries on the Scottish creative scene, they have not created new work about the independence referendum for this year’s Festival; to the extent that Scotland’s artists have been accused by some in the UK media, this festival, of being “creatively disengaged” from the constitutional debate, as if they were in some way avoiding it.

It seems to me, though, that the situation is more subtle than that; and that there are at least three much more complex reasons why the highest-profile shows about Scottish independence on the Fringe – Tim Price’s allegorical play I’m With The Band, at the Traverse, about the breakup of a four-nations rock band, and Northern Stage’s Bloody Great Border Ballad Project at St. Stephen’s – originate from Wales and Newcastle respectively.

The first reason lies in the sheer weight of the other subjects Scottish artists are choosing to tackle. Whatever you make of this year’s shows by David Greig, Alan Bissett, or a dozen other Scottish writers, it’s difficult to argue that subjects like extreme political violence and our response to it, or the rise of right-wing politics in Europe, or the growth of a pervasive sadistic porn culture on the internet, are not at least as important and urgent as Scottish independence, and arguably much more so. This is not to say, of course, that Scots should not take next year’s decision very seriously. The brute fact is, though, that the day after the referendum, regardless of the result, Scottish society will still face the same intractable issues of economic recession, structural unemployment, environmental stress, shameful inequality and routine abuse of power that plague governments across the planet, in our time; constitutional change means, at best, a positive adjustment in our ability to deal with those problems, which remain as pressing as ever.

Then secondly, many Scottish artists seem wary of the present terms of the debate, which have been imposed, top down, by a political class which refused to provide Scottish voters with the ‘devolution max’ option around which they could have formed a consensus, and is now demanding a straight Yes or No decision on what is, in fact, a very complex series of social, emotional, institutional and political relationships.

Politicians may be foolish enough to talk about resolving the independence issue ‘once and for all’ with such a referendum. But artists know that the present debate is structured in a way that is divisive rather than creative, simplistic rather than subtle, disempowering rather than empowering; and so they tend, rightly, to steer clear of it in their creative work.

And then finally, there is the inconvenient truth that the relationship between art and politics, while it certainly exists, is never as straightforward as students of politics would like to be; art is always a couple of decades ahead of the curve, in terms of big social and cultural trends, and a wise half-decade or so behind the curve, in its creative response to sudden events.

Scotland’s artists, writers and musicians did most of their heavy lifting – in terms of reimagining a post-modern Scottish identity that would be inclusive, creative, and infinitely open to changing accounts of itself – back in the 1980s and 1990s, when a generation of Scots were forced to define the terms of their opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s view of Britain. To most Scottish-based writers and artists, the debate about what kind of nation Scotland should be is therefore an old one, long since concluded in favour of that inclusive and progressive vision; which is why many of them seem to see a Yes vote in next year’s referendum as an obvious move, given the current reactionary state of UK politics.

Elsewhere in the UK, though, that debate about different possible futures, with or without Scotland, is only just beginning to surface, as the referendum approaches; and if plays like I’m With The Band signal the tentative emergence of a wider four-nations debate about where we are heading, then that can only be a hugely positive development. When Westminster politicians and journalists talk about the possibility of Scottish independence, they often talk about Scotland “leaving” or “going its own way”, as if we were about to unzip the Border, and float off into the North Atlantic.

Yet as Tim Price observes at the end of his play, after all the sound and fury of the referendum debate, we will all still be here, on this rough-edged archipelago at the north-west corner of Europe.

And if Scots have had enough of their long-running constitutional debate – and now simply want to vote and have done with it – the dialogue about how we live together on these islands will continue nonetheless, through whatever constitutional framework we choose; and in some ways – if the artists and writers of London and Newcastle, Cardiff and Belfast are to be believed – may only just be beginning.

Joyce Macmillan is a drama critic, cultural commentator and a columnist with The Scotsman where this article originally appeared.

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