If a majority of Scots vote Yes for independence on September 18, it will transform our sense of what it is to be British. Still, that wouldn’t mean an end to the common culture of the island – it may even enhance it.
Many people north and south of the border have invested in this shared sense of “British-ness” and have understandable anxieties about finding family members (however remote) in a foreign country. But are they right to be concerned?
In the short term, there will be significant disruption. There will be an upending of old certainties, a blow to a sense of solidarity and mental, if not physical, borders raised … and that’s even before the politicians get to work on the carve-up. And yet, we would most likely continue watching the same programmes, read the same books and listen to the same music. British culture won’t stop overnight.
The right kind of different
Capitalising on this continuity has been a strength of the SNP’s campaign. In his St George’s Day speech in Carlisle, Alex Salmond made a bold play in Unionist territory, when he spoke of a social union and emphasised Scotland as part of a family of island nations. Derided in the national papers as a sop to wavers, it is at least an astute reading of the polls: 69% of Scots regard themselves as British in some part and a full 86% of Scots favoured retaining the BBC. Salmond’s pitch, it seems to me, is this: you don’t stop being part of the community just because now you get the chance to make your own decisions.
And why shouldn’t it work? Creative production is all about making something individual and distinctive. When we watch TV crime dramas like Morse, Midsomer Murders, The Fall or Taggart – the accents do not detract from the viewing experience, they enhance it. An independent Scotland might create new opportunities for experimentation and new channels for broadcasting, why shouldn’t this output be attractive to the rest of the UK?
The danger is that borders create divisions in the mind. For one, it creates space for posturing. If Scotland keeps all the licence fees raised in Scotland, this would reduce scope for genuine collaboration with the BBC. Similarly, the United Kingdom may choose not to legislate enabling the National Lottery to operate in Scotland and keep the economy of scale for itself. There is also scope for chauvinism from broadcasting commissioners along the lines of: “Why do we want to hear stories from that lot that separated.” Scottish output would surely be foreign to the rest of the UK and would compete for commercial slots against the deluge of US content.
Finally there is also a more profound inhibition. Creative professionals rely on “cultural capital” – the tacit knowledge that enables diverse artists to collaborate successfully and for producers to anticipate the interests of their audience. If the two countries move in different directions, will we have the same outlook, sense the same changing trends or find the same jokes funny?
You can’t act small, if you want to be big
I believe there is every reason why artists – even those passionate about building a distinctive Scottish identity – will try hard to make a “social union” of kinds work. And it will come down to quality and money.
Creative production is an inherently risky business. When Trainspotting hit the screens in 1996 it was a major hit, but its risky material was also a big gamble for Channel 4, which financed it. It is impossible to know whether a hypothetical Scottish broadcaster might have done the same, though it would have been a bigger slice of the available funding pie and thus a tougher sell.
What can be said with reasonable certainty is that the UK audience would have been the target market, being big enough to make a return on the investment but also similar enough to appreciate it. Indeed, significant changes were made to the film when it crossed the water to America, and though successful, it made less money.
This isn’t a question merely of the size of the market, but the diversity of opportunities available for production and distribution. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that a first-time writer would restrict themselves only to Scottish agents and publishers when the rest of the UK (and Ireland) offers so many more opportunities to beat the odds and get their material in print.
In more collaborative art forms like theatre, television and film, reputational networks are used as proxies for quality control – and screenwriters, directors or actors need to ensure they are visible and in tune with the right circles of people, whether they are in Glasgow, Cardiff, Salford or London. Doctor Who will not just lose its Scottish (and Welsh!) character and the dynamics of the creative sector will continue to demand the circulation of talent and material between the two islands.
A social union without a political one?
The cultural similarities between the nations of Britain mean that there will always be a centrifugal pressure promoting collaboration in the creative sector and the spread of common ideas and material. Scotland will continue to feel like a home from home for the rest of the UK, regardless of the political complexion.
But there is still a political dimension. The cultural relationship between the UK and Ireland is notably commercial and asymmetrical. Irish actors and screen-writers contribute greatly to UK production, but there is an absence of Ireland-based programmes on UK TV. The BBC shows in Ireland, following a partnership with RTE but we do not see the studio cutting to its Dublin correspondent during Comic Relief fundraisers. There is not a broad collaborative relationship – Ireland is, and is regarded as, a foreign country.
Would an independent Scotland be foreign or part of the family? If it is to be the latter then it would require political agreement – not just to provide the framework for institutions to collaborate effectively, but as part of a wider popular consensus that Britain remains a greater cultural community regardless of the political changes.
This would be difficult in the wake of a separation but there would be great gains – Scotland would get better access to funding and a large market for its output, the BBC would retain its economies of scale and the UK a strong Celtic presence to offset its remaining 92% of English dominance.
Could it work? Maybe. But whatever this new arrangement might be, just don’t call it the “United Kingdoms”.