Scottish independence: Aye, have a dream

The National Collective asked a country’s most creative minds to "imagine a better Scotland" – and now the idea is taking hold.

Thousands marched through the streets of Edinburgh on Saturday. The crowd, which straggled its way from the Royal Mile to the great stone columns on Calton Hill, were marking a year until the referendum for Scottish independence.

Amongst them were a group of artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers, all sporting the same black and white T-shirts. One man held aloft a cardboard placard: “Aye, have a dream.” Another, hand painted in green, girlish letters, read: “Vote as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” a play on the slogan made popular by the writer Alasdair Gray.

The marchers represented a growing grass roots movement among the arts community in Scotland, who are lending their skills to the nationalist cause. They are young. They are creative. They are witty and sometimes brash. They call themselves ‘the National Collective’.

The National Collective is a non-party political body – although, like the rest of the country, it tends towards the left – which seeks out new ways to inspire an undecided Scottish electorate to vote ‘Yes’ come next September.

The collective made headlines earlier this year when it published an article criticising Ian Taylor, the unionist campaign’s biggest donor and chief executive of the oil company Vitol, noting that – amongst other complaints – his firm had been found guilty of grand larceny in the US in 2007 after paying $13m in kickbacks to Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein for oil contracts.

(Threats from Taylor’s solicitor’s prompted the collective’s website to go offline shortly afterwards – offering only a page of static and Mogwai’s Music for a Forgotten Future. The article has since been republished.)

Since then support for their campaign has ballooned. Last month its website received 80,000 hits, and there are now local chapters in all the major Scottish cities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Stirling, Inverness and Aberdeen.

I met two of the core members – Mairi McFadyen, an academic at Edinburgh University, and Ròs Hunter, a student at Glasgow – over a coffee at the Fruitmarket Gallery, where the trains of Waverley Station below make themselves known in a rumbling through the foundations.

Mairi is a founding member of Trad Yes, a group of folk musicians keen to express their support for independence. She said: "We don't want our musicians to make their gig a political event. But we ask them to have a banner on stage, or mention the campaign during the performance, to make their support known."

The National Collective promotes their contributors in a number of different ways. New writing and images are published on the main website; musicians, spoken word and short films showcased on a dedicated YouTube channel.

Ròs explained: “Anyone who wants to suggest a new project can fill in an online document outlining their proposal, telling us what they'd need us to provide or what resources they can offer. They might want to borrow a camera, or need some volunteers to help at an event, or they might just need coloured paper and pens."

Her 'wish tree' project asks supporters to write what they would like to see from an independent Scotland onto coloured paper tags, which are then tied to a branch or string. Wishes range from deadly serious (“We decide which wars we fight”) to flippant (“More sunshine and fewer midgies!”), but together they offer a broad brush impression of a great hope for the future.

Indeed, the pair are almost giddy with the possibilities, recounting the aspirations and travails of the campaign with a rare earnestness, both in vigorous agreement that the Collective is one outlet through which young Scots are growing in “cultural confidence”.

Such enthusiasm is infectious. The National Collective has attracted warm words from a number of high profile Scots, including the national poet Liz Lochhead, the author Alasdair Gray and the comedian Elaine C Smith.

The playwright Alan Bissett, whose (ironic) poem Vote Britain (“Vote with your heart. Vote Empire.”) has become a rallying cry amongst the nationalist movement, joined the collective as a 'creative ambassador'. 

He said: “Artists are by their nature suspicious of  party politics, since this almost invariably means toeing some kind of line - which is the death of the imagination. At the same time, however, we understand the value of collaborating on a project larger than ourselves as individuals, since that’s how musicians, film-makers and playwrights work.  

"The National Collective gives us the chance to explore the independence issue flexibly and with a creative spirit: no conversation is off-limits and nothing feels coercive. We want to be anarchic, outspoken and free."

Their support reflects how the wider creative community in Scotland have rallied around the Yes campaign. As has been remarked upon in the Scottish press, there are few in the arts willing to admit to unionist sympathies, despite a flood of names declaring in the opposite direction including Annie Lennox, Jack Vettriano and Frankie Boyle (and many more, which have been compiled in a list on the National Collective’s website).

It’s a surprising trend, given that the level of support for independence amongst the general population hovers around 30%.

A number of factors play a part in this surge of support from the creative community, not least because the Scottish Government has traditionally placed a lot of emphasis in funding for the arts – particularly when seen in comparison to the Coalition government at Westminster. The national arts agency Arts Council England saw its budget slashed by almost a third in 2010 and by a further 5% earlier this year; its equivalent, Creative Scotland, on the other hand, has seen its budget cut by a mere 2%.

The First Minister Alex Salmond too has personally shown his admiration of a number of Scottish writers by quoting from their work in his speeches. Last year he read The Nonsense Ends by little-known Edinburgh poet George Robinson at the SNP party conference (“Not I and more are yet content / With just a devolved parliament.”), the year before invoking Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose when he promised that “the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”

Thus Salmond grasps that the poet may be better placed to inspire than the politician, even going so far as to declare that he would be asking “one of Scotland’s great literary talents” to help write the Scottish Government’s upcoming white paper on independence, due to be published in November. (The novelist William McIlvanney has been tipped for the role, but there has been no confirmation.)

There too is the inherent romanticism of an independence movement: the struggle for freedom makes a grand narrative, with which the more pressing fight – the struggle against apathy – can be fought.

Campaigning to maintain the status quo, which is what the unionist movement Better Together is tasked with, is a less inspiring task. But then, the No campaign doesn’t need to inspire; creating uncertainty will almost certainly be enough to lure the canny Scots to remain within the safety of the Union.

Better Together, led by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, has faced claims of fear-mongering, after initial arguments centred around the risks of independence (the oil money running out, banks sinking the economy, the EU barring re-entry), in a bid to present this scrappy little country as incapable of looking after itself. This approach did not sit well with the public, but as Darling himself remarked, “the onus is on those who want to break up the union to explain why going-it-alone would be better for Scotland.”

Police estimated the crowd at the rally on Saturday to number in the region of 8,300. Its organisers disagreed, claiming that between 20,000 and 30,000 turned up. Either way, it was a good show in a city with a population of less than 500,000.

Nevertheless, to win the referendum, the Yes campaign needs the support of many hundreds of thousands more. It’s a big ask, but they have some of the country’s most inspiring voices on their side. Is it possible? Certainly. Is it likely? Well, who knows.

The Dundee-born novelist AL Kennedy said: “Arts workers might feel that being in a more progressive, autodidactic atmosphere would be good in general and good for them personally.  They may feel an independent, left leaning Scotland would be that place. Some people always feel they might be a bigger fish if the pond was smaller, some want to get creative with a whole new start for their country.

“It will be an interesting time, the next few months... but the cultural ground work and confidence and architecture are all there. That's not in doubt. This is a vote about whether Scotland's politicians measure up or not.”

Thousands of pro-independence campaigners attend a rally on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. Image: Getty

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at www.calflyn.com and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder