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Imagining a new nation

6 January 2015

Why were Scottish artists overwhelmingly supportive of a Yes vote in the independence referendum? Is it because painters, writers and musicians – freelance self-starters all - are already in the business of imagining? Musician and writer PAT KANE considers why cultural activism continues to energise Scots and what is next for Scotland's artistic community.

The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh
Yes supporters in Glasgow's George Square after the polls closed. Image © Getty Images

Scotland in the summer of 2014 was, of course, a nation in conversation and debate about independence. But it was also a nation expressing this through every kind of cultural form - touring "Yestivals", animated virals, Twitter-length plays, thumping rock gigs, a tsunami of books and blogs, posters and pamphlets.

And most of those cultural makers were articulating the "Yes" position.

National Collective, the organisation who most actively mobilised artists and creatives for independence, gained over 4000 active members, starting with the Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead and working their way downwards and outwards throughout the artistic community.

Why were Scots artists so overwhelmingly supportive of a Yes vote? In my view, the most elemental reason may be their positive attitude to risk and possibility.

Freelance self-starters, who accept a degree of precarity and openness in their lives, could easily live with competing accounts of the outcome of independence.

But they also knew, deep down, the rewards of autonomy, of shaping your life according to your own lights. And how a sense of vision can transform your reality.

This is a different life experience than for the majority of settled, occupational Scots, who - as it turned out - were not convinced that the benefits of independence outweighed the risks.

Another answer to the question is that the arts had already declared "independence in the world" decades ago (only amplified by Holyrood being responsible for cultural policy).

Scots artists knew, deep down, the rewards of autonomy, of shaping your life according to your own lights. And how a sense of vision can transform your reality

For author Alan Bissett, "a Yes position is the corollary of the creative heavy-lifting most Scottish artists had already been doing in their work."

For years, says Bissett, they've struggled against both "the cultural - and often elitist - supernova of London", and the "tartan-and-heather clichés which even Scots have sold to them through the filter of Unionism."

I don't think you can underestimate the importance of the arts to the eventual size of the Yes vote. The huge commitment of the artistic and creative communities to the Yes campaign made it a proper "movement".

A movement is something that embraces many different types, classes and ideologies in service of a clear goal (or vote). But by means of word, sound, image and interaction, it also "moves" people emotionally.

"Artists and creatives are always at the forefront of social movements, setting the cultural frame for change by provoking thought”, says Zara Gladman, whose "Lady Alba" persona (riffing on Lady Gaga) was a YouTube sensation.

"The indyref was no different. Imagining the future takes creative force to bring to life."

The creative nature of the Yes movement explains why, post-referendum, its energy looked for - and easily found - alternative vessels of expression, many of them with a cultural edge.

The SNP's near-quadrupling of membership (with other pro-Yes parties and organisations also doubling or tripling) was confirmed by stadium-rock events, packed with tens of thousands of supporters.

Take also the creation of pro-independence newspaper The National. Its week-long test-run was so overwhelmingly supported by Yessers that it made the hard-nosed commercial case for its continuation inevitable.

Its main cartoonist is Greg Moodie, who rose to fame through his work for indy websites like National Collective.

Organisations like Bella Caledonia and Common Weal have ambitious plans to become journalistic and cultural platforms in their own right. They're using crowdfunding to appeal to Scots who became disillusioned with mainstream media sources during the referendum.

So that sense of wondering exactly who won or lost in the indyref, given the continuing surges in support and enthusiasm for the debate, owes a lot (I believe) to the importance of cultural activism during the referendum.

To quote Iain Macwhirter from his new book on the referendum, the Yes movement's combination of culture, social media and public events allowed (and allows) its participants to live "as if" Scotland was already independent.

As playwright Peter Arnott says, "what we did not vote for was silence and non-existence - which seemed to be how the No politicians had hoped to interpret the result."

But on huge turnout and with near total voter registration, the indyref delivered a clear No vote. Indy-supporting artists and creatives (myself included) have only begun to grapple with this.

Obviously for yes to win in the future a lot of minds have to be changed so positive engagement is essential
Stuart Braithwaite

Will the novelist Alan Warner be proved right, in claiming that a No vote would be an ultimate disaster for artists - finding themselves massively at odds with a majority of fellow Scots, whose civic passions would be alien or baffling to them?

There were a few No-voting writers - like Ewan Morrison, Carol Craig and Denise Mina - who made searing critiques of Yes culture as evangelistic, even cult-like.

No matter their political commitments, I’m confident that Scottish artists will be contrarian enough - and open-hearted enough - to refute that charge by their works and deeds.

As Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite puts it, "I'm disappointed that so many Scots voted no but I bear no animosity or ill-will. Obviously for yes to win in the future a lot of minds have to be changed so positive engagement is essential".

I had my own fears that the cultural aftermath of a No vote in 2014 would be like the No vote to a Scottish Assembly in 1979 - a story of emigration, collective depression, tumbleweed rolling through the streets.

So far, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Something has deeply changed in Scotland as a result of the referendum. Artists and creatives, as ever, will be the first to register that change. Watch their space.

Pat Kane is a musician, writer and board member of Common Weal. He was also on the advisory board to YesScotland.

Pat Kane
Poet and Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead
Author Alan Bissett
Stuart Braithwaite playing with Mogwai


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