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For readers in the rest of the UK, Christine Hamilton reflects on how the Scottish arts world has responded to the independence referendum.

Image of girl and painting
Annieka Rose performing Gallery 9 by Zinnie Harris, part of the Dear Scotland project

Peter Dibdin

There are only three things that are certain about the Scottish independence referendum: the question – Should Scotland be an independent country?; the date of the vote – 18 September 2014; and that everyone who is aged 16 or over, registered and resident in Scotland can vote. At the time of writing, it looks like there will be a big turnout, that the Nos have it but not by as much as it appeared at the start of this campaign, that the Don’t Knows remain stubbornly and genuinely undecided and that Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK will change by a lot or some in the years ahead. In this uncertain and changing world where sits the artist? What role are the arts playing in the debate? What motivates and what impact will the result have on the arts community?

If you draw your information from the mainstream media you could be forgiven for being unaware of the huge impact of the debate on the arts and vice versa. This is not about funding nor structures nor narrow self-interest. Nor is it about celebrity endorsement. This is about engagement. And, thanks to social media and access via the web, you can witness some of this beyond Scotland.

The first thing to note is that most of the artists who are active in the debate are supporting a Yes vote

The first thing to note is that most of the artists who are active in the debate are supporting a Yes vote. There are artists who oppose independence but there is less active engagement by them. And, in many respects, it is theatre artists who are taking the lead. The most prominent and established group is the National Collective (NC) which is drawn from across the sector – musicians, writers, playwrights and visual artists – and mainly, but not exclusively, young artists. As well as using their web page and social media (@wearenational), NC has raised over £30,000 via crowdfunding to support a series of Yestivals across Scotland in July and August. Dates include Melrose and Sanquhar in the south, to Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles in the north, so if you are on holiday in Scotland this summer, chances are you will be able to witness one for yourself.

A leading member of NC is the playwright David Greig and you can catch his 140-character, Yes No plays on Twitter. David was also part of the Bus Party, a group of artists including playwrights, pipers, philosophers and musicians touring small communities this spring, listening to and imagining what people in Scotland want to see for their country in the future (again funded via individual giving). If you are in Edinburgh this summer, you will have the chance to catch ‘All back to Bowie’s’ (a reference to David Bowie’s call for Scotland to ‘stay with us’), a mixture of politics, poetry, polemic and pop led by Greig and other artists. If you want to see a show directly dealing with the referendum, then try the Assembly Rooms and seven new shows dealing with the topic including writer Alan Bissett and performers Elaine C Smith and David Hayman, all of whom are prominent in the Yes campaign.

But the involvement of the arts in this debate goes beyond any direct campaigning. Earlier this year, in a strictly non-partisan way, Edinburgh Libraries organised a series of events, including an examination of the cultural, political and historical influences on the debate, entitled The Road to the Referendum. Glasgow Libraries Aye Write festival in April also featured debates on the topic.

As with the libraries, arts organisations are not themselves taking a Yes or No position, but many are responding to the debate. Dear Scotland, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) in collaboration with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, involved 20 writers who created short monologues inspired by the portraits in the gallery. Audiences were taken in groups to admire the paintings and witness the monologues with works inspired by Walter Scott, Robert Burns and the Queen, among others. While some writers chose to reflect the current debate directly, some used the opportunity to explore more widely ideas of Scotland and its past and present.

The Great Yes No Don’t Know Show, also from NTS, took the form of 24 hours of five-minute plays streamed across the internet. Performers and writers from professional theatre, schools, community groups and several international contributors responded to the call to create a short drama on the theme of independence. The whole event was curated by the ubiquitous David Greig (Yes) and David MacLennan (No) who both wrote work to be included. Sadly, David MacLennan died only nine days before transmission. If you missed it you can still see it online.

NTS is not the only company responding directly to the debate. The Arches has a two-week festival in the run up to 18 September which they describe as a “series of performances, conversations and art [to] encourage audiences to think about how we make decisions, where the desire for independence comes from, and whether it even really matters”. The centrepiece is ‘Wallace’ by Rob Drummond and David Overend which will be re-imagined in light of the result and performed later at the Royal National Theatre (NT) in London. The Arches is also hosting an all-night party as the results come in.

Moving on from the polemic and the direct response, the referendum is also the context for everything that is happening in Scotland at the moment. It is the prism through which we view the rest of the world – whether that be immigration and poverty at home, events in Ukraine or global environmental threats or indeed the Commonwealth. With the Commonwealth Games coming to Glasgow this month, there is a large, coinciding cultural programme which explores and celebrates the cultures of the Commonwealth. This would have happened regardless of the referendum, but programmes such as Home Nations at the Tron, celebrating work by Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish writers, the re-mounting of Glasgow Girls about asylum-seekers in Glasgow, a play My Father’s Words from Dundee Rep about language and identity around Scots emigrant experience in Canada and more take on an added relevance in this heightened atmosphere.

Last year, Jonathan Mills, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) rejected any idea that this year’s festival would be responding to the referendum claiming it to be a politics-free zone. Well, not quite. One of this year’s major events is the James Plays, a trilogy by Rona Munro, produced by NTS in collaboration with EIF and NT which tells the story of the kings of Scotland James I, II and III – the Stewarts who reigned in the fifteenth century. It is difficult to imagine a more high-profile piece of theatre involving two national theatres and the UK’s biggest arts festival. Its relevance to today’s debate is highlighted in the EIF’s own programme: “Each play stands alone as a unique vision of a country tussling with its past and future, with its own distinct theatrical atmosphere. Viewed together they create a complex and compelling narrative on Scottish culture and nationhood.” As then, as now. If you miss it in Edinburgh, it is playing in London from 10 September to 29 October.

The No campaign is not a natural home for those who oppose independence on the grounds that they support international socialism

Why are artists so involved? And why predominantly Yes supporters? Artists in Scotland are no different from artists anywhere in the world. Their role is to reflect, examine and, as the Bard says, “hold a mirror up to nature”. The referendum has galvanised Scottish civic life. The vote will be won or lost on issues of policy and not on questions of how Scottish you are. Nevertheless, cultural identity is being re-imagined with an exploration of the values and identity of a twenty-first century democracy. It is this territory that artists are exploring.

The performance style has its antecedents in companies like 7:84 Scotland and Wildcat. Direct engagement with the audience and short sharp interventions, and the use of song and comedy are important strands in Scottish theatre. We can also detect other influences. Since devolution in 1999 the arts have been closer to the political process in Scotland. That is not always a comfortable place to be and relationships can at times be prickly. But what we have witnessed over the last 15 years is a growing confidence, not only in Scottish-produced work but in being prepared to enter into the debates on a range of issues, not only the arts. And this willingness to be part of the national conversation has been reciprocated. Artists and the arts do not have a special place in Scotland, but they are given their place.

Devolution has also delivered directly for the arts in Scotland. The cross-party Parliamentary group on culture includes artistic intervention in all it meetings, most recently including extracts from Dear Scotland. The National Theatre of Scotland was an initiative of the Labour/Liberal governments and more recently, the SNP-led Government is given credit for supporting the arts. It is not that there have been no cuts, it is that these are seen as being proportionate so far – and the political rhetoric is about the arts being central to life here and not simply as a tool to deliver other government objectives.

Devolution has meant that the arts (with the huge exception of broadcasting) have been a Scottish-only affair since 1999 – and the sky has not fallen in and international and pan-UK relationships are flourishing. So if it works in this area, as with other parts of our daily lives, why not grasp the opportunity to control all our affairs, argue the Yes-supporting artists. As voters who dream and imagine, their passion is a fairer, greener, nuclear-free and more economically dynamic Scotland.

However, the other side of the argument is if it works, why change it? As indicated above, there are few artists prominent in the No campaign. This is partly down to the nature of that campaign: it has not up till now had a huge grassroots engagement beyond the meetings led by politicians. It is also uncomfortable territory for artists, the majority of whom regard themselves as left of centre and do not wish to be identified with a Conservative-led campaign even if some old pals from the Labour party are there. The No campaign is not a natural home for those who oppose independence on the grounds that they support international socialism. Not many of them go as far as the composer James MacMillan who has drawn historical parallels between artists’ support for nationalism and fascism.  MacMillan also maintains that many No supporting artists are frightened to speak out. What we do know is that JK Rowling is not only supporting a No vote but has donated £1 million to the campaign. David Shrigley has also publically come out in favour of No and raises concerns about how independence might affect his business as an artist. Similar concerns are shared by some in the classical music field. For those working internationally and whose next job or commission is as likely to be in Berlin, London or Los Angeles as it is Edinburgh, there is a fear that independence will make that more difficult. And there are some understandable worries about the future of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

So what will happen to the arts after the referendum? The paradox is that for the arts, regardless of the vote, nothing will change yet all will be different.

If it is a No, which is the more likely outcome, then the status quo prevails. Or does it? The UK parties are making moves to offer enhanced devolution terms to Scotland in response to a No vote. The precise terms of this offer will depend in the end on who wins the next UK election. At the moment, perhaps ironically, the Conservatives are proposing a wider range of powers than Labour. However, these terms are unlikely to directly affect the arts. But if, as some predict, Scotland will face a reduction in the block grant and the end of the funding formula, then spending on the arts like all other areas will be reduced.

Moreover, the politics of Scotland have changed. The coalition between Labour/Liberal/Tories in the Better Together campaign has damaged Labour within its core support (mainly because of the connection with the Tories). In terms of the arts, Labour has been almost completely silent since losing control of the Scottish Parliament in 2007. It is no longer considered the natural ally of the cultural sector.

There is speculation that even with a No vote, the genie is out of the bottle. While there will be no revisiting the constitutional question within a political generation, the thinking, debating and analysing which has gone on will influence how policy is developed and could also have a real impact on political engagement. On the other hand, the electorate may retreat into political apathy once the decision has been made – and the artists with them.

If it is a Yes then the arts, already devolved, are not directly affected in any treaty negotiation – with the very important exceptions of broadcasting and the Lottery. The BBC is not having a good referendum campaign with accusations of bias within its news and current affairs. Moreover, BBC Scotland has not capitalised on the creative energy unleashed in Scottish artists as they engage in the debate. Its failure to work (in television) with Scottish-based writers and film-makers and to engage with an industry which is overflowing with talent, is not what is expected of a national (sic) broadcaster. We can assume from the SNP’s White Paper that Scotland will want to contribute to the BBC and have a share in its programming in the future, but there is probably a lot of change ahead there regardless of how the vote goes.

On the Lottery, this will be an area of difficult negotiation but so will many things. However, there will be real fear among artists about the loss of an important source of funding.

But of course everything will change if there is a Yes vote. The SNP will in time probably dissolve into right and left social democratic wings, and new political coalitions will be formed. There will be lots of arguments and negotiations. One of the roles the arts and artists will have is to imagine, comment, challenge, change and continue to have a voice in the new Scotland.

There has been talk about the need for reconciliation after 18 September – a tad overblown. There will be some who are grumpy, disappointed, heartbroken even, and some who will be angry, but the worst that has happened so far are some ill-judged comments by politicians and vile exchanges on social media. Not a blow has been struck, not a bullet fired and nor a bomb thrown. And that is not going to change.

Christine Hamilton is an arts policy consultant.

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