Scotland Decides ’14: why do artists want independence?

With a few notable exceptions, the arts community is voting yes. Hugh Simmons, CC BY-SA

Edinburgh is about to undergo its annual transformation. The population more than doubles as Scotland’s capital plays host to a month-long arts extravaganza with performers, comedians, writers, artists and musicians taking their places for the Edinburgh international festival, fringe and book festival.

This year, visitors to the Scottish capital will inevitably be exposed to the looming independence referendum. And they will discover that the Scottish artistic community routinely leans towards the yes camp. We asked our panel why this should be the case.

Lesley Riddoch, PhD student at Strathclyde University, broadcaster and journalist

National Collective’s “Yestival” tour of Scotland is a demonstration of the preference most young artists have for the independence cause. It’s a 25-event tour with music, film dance and “the spoken word” – not so much sermons from on high as chatty, personal descriptions of each artist’s “journey to yes”. Watching six excellent cutting-edge cabaret-style acts at the Yestival in Dundee I could hear one common theme. Most artists are internationalists.

One speaker, historical writer Sara Sheridan, was originally a no voter. She told us: “An independent Scotland felt as if it would be inward-looking, small and parochial. It felt like an over-reaction to vote yes and I wasn’t going to do it.”

“I searched for material that backed up my decision. But as I got out there and opened my eyes, there wasn’t a lot that fitted the bill. I’d had the experience of living in Ireland when I was a student and I knew that small countries were able to look outwards.”

“I read pieces by other Scottish creatives and practically no one who was arguing for the yes campaign was looking inwards. I realised that my knee-jerk reaction (or the grounds on which I’d made it) was (gasp) wrong. The reality just didn’t measure up and more than anything I didn’t want to base my vote on a feeling that was unreliable.”

Almost all the other acts made a point of saying they were not nationalists and intended to vote yes as the best way to get rid of Trident, establish a fair society, protect disabled people, topple material wealth from its current pole position and rejoin the international community as a self-respecting social democracy – to quote Winnie Ewing: “Stop the World, Scotland wants to get on.”

Artists for yes are touring Scotland as part of the Yestival. Seti, CC BY-SA

In June I was with the Scottish contingent to a folk festival at Geiteberg in Norway. It wasn’t explicitly a pro-independence event but all the performers shared a presumption that yes was the only game in town. After talking to many of the accomplished young fiddlers, pipers and singers a few things became apparent.

They all exist on next to nothing and while no one explicitly mentioned hopes of a higher priority for Scots culture in an independent Scotland, I suppose there must be the hope that their own financial futures might be slightly rosier in a state unequivocally backing its own indigenous cultures.

These talented musicians also experience the rough end of the inequality embodied by the British state. None has any hope of buying a home – they will never have a steady enough income to afford a mortgage. They are self-starters, risk-takers and believers. They are also self-employed, independent-minded and very well travelled.

I know a short time living in Norway to work on a PhD stiffened my own resolve to vote yes. Those who’ve travelled extensively – especially in northern Europe – can see a fairer deal is possible with indigenous culture at the funded centre rather than the near-voluntary margins of society.

Kirsty Gunn, Professor of Creative Writing, University of Dundee

I think the reason most artists are in the yes camp is because forging an independent Scotland is an intensely creative thing to imagine and be part of. It’s a wonderful project.

There are a lot of artists who would want to be fully onboard with that initiative in terms of the kinds of activities they want to be involved with and the kind of role that they see themselves playing in Scottish public life. It’s an opportunity to start imagining a country that operates on different terms.

I’m one of the exceptions. I think a lot of Scottish artists and writers have underestimated the fact that once you take on this kind of project of imagining a new country, it is a full-time job. I was a child in New Zealand in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was breaking away from the UK. When I was growing up it was very much a colonial world where people called Scotland home and there were ceilidhs, pipe bands and so on.

By the 1970s, that New Zealand was starting to identify itself as a south Pacific country and was fully engaged in reflecting a new sense of itself back to its people. I could see the way that it took up every writer’s time. That sense of an agenda took the place of every other kind of literary or aesthetic concern.

Those kinds of things don’t interest me at all, even though I can understand why a lot of writers find that kind of work very exciting. But my experience is that the dominant culture becomes one that is absolutely a politicised rather than an aesthetic culture. The dialogue becomes very different. Basically I am an aesthete. I am only interested in making things because I am interested in form and ideas and shape and style. Content is not something that excites me in itself. The artist has no agenda and has no country.

The rest of the work by the Scotland Decides ‘14 expert panel can be found here.