Arts feature

How independence will impoverish Scottish culture

Daniel Jackson foresees a desecrated cultural landscape for an independent Scotland, with artists forced to do Salmond’s bidding

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

An explosion of confetti will greet the announcement of Scottish independence. This isn’t another one of Alex Salmond’s fanciful promises, but an installation by a visual artist named Ellie Harrison. She wants Scotland to become a socialist republic. She has placed four confetti cannons in Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery. They will only be fired in the event of a Yes vote.

Most artists in Scotland favour independence. Harrison’s installation is typical of the pretentious agitprop they produce. This isn’t a uniquely Scottish problem. ‘Nationalist’ art is by definition functional: it promotes a cause. And though art with an agenda tends to be uninspiring, if it serves its purpose nationalist politicians are happy to fund it.

Scotland’s artists are keen to remind us that a vote for independence doesn’t reflect support for the SNP. Very few of them are party activists. Despite belonging to a group called National Collective, many of them aren’t comfortable with nationalism either. Aidan Moffat, a hairy man in his forties who sings cynical pop songs, sounds positively earnest when he dissociates independence from nationalism: ‘Independence isn’t about breaking away or creating borders, nor nationalist pride. It’s about building the better society that we hope for. It’s an opportunity to create the environment we’ve consistently voted for; it’s being responsible for our own future by democratically electing the people we trust.’

That’s all very well, but isn’t there a conflict of interest here? Scottish artists and performers are hungry consumers of government arts funding. A theatre director told me recently that it should be protected as a ‘basic human right’. And, happily for them, their enthusiasm for subsidy coincides with the statist ideology of the Scottish Nationalist government that signs the cheques.

Alex Salmond, like most nationalist leaders, has a wily understanding of the importance of the creative arts to his cause. Responsibility for culture in his cabinet lies with the foreign minister. That might seem odd, but it makes perfect sense. Salmond expects artists to project Scottish identity on to the international stage.

So far, his plan has worked. Since the SNP gained a majority in Holyrood, the relationship between Scotland’s artists and the nationalist elite has been uncomfortably close. It has been especially uncomfortable for the playwrights, painters and musicians who support the Union. Until recently they were under pressure to keep quiet. ‘But now we’re speaking out because the stakes are so high,’ says the composer James MacMillan. What will happen to the arts in Scotland if the nationalists win on Thursday? Harrison’s ludicrous cannons will explode. But then what? The word MacMillan uses is ‘desecration’: ‘We’ll lose the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra — in fact, we’ll lose the BBC. It’s unthinkable.’

But Salmond won’t see it that way. The governments of independent nations invariably expect their nationalist artists to continue in the role of cultural ambassadors. A revival of socialist realism seems unlikely (though you never know). A more plausible comparison is with the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Under Atatürk’s rule hundreds of community art centres were opened across the country. These were used to disperse the cultural ideals of the new regime.

In a healthy democracy artists hold the government to account. They satirise and ridicule their masters. The consensus that exists between Scotland’s left-wing artists and the nationalist government is not healthy, and is likely to become progressively less so.

Salmond talks about ‘diversity’, but if he emerges as father of the nation next week he will expect his diversity to come with a patriotic cringe. And this is where Scottish artists will pay the price for their blind faith in state funding. Following independence, the SNP regime will quickly empty its coffers. The arts budget will shrivel. The only beneficiaries will be artists who are prepared to ‘do their bit’ for the new Scotland, to prolong the celebration. Ellie Harrison should save some of that confetti. She’s on to a winner.

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  • Tamas Marcuis

    Everything that is happening in reality is in contradiction to this article. That artistic community in Scotland has always been to the fore in the movement towards Scottish independence, from the stage “The Stag and the Black Black Oil” to paintings, literature and even tiles. The posters as shown on Bella Caledonia are full of real beauty beyond their supposed use for the movement, whereas the NO campaign’s are as bland as corporate adverts can be. I mistook a leaflet for holidays for the Elderly as one for the NOs and others have compared them to those for laxatives. Same type of picture same type of language. That’s before you even talk about their awful TV adverts that satisfy art if they are taken as ironic satyre.
    Boyond all this is the blanket of contempt held by London centred culture for all Scottish culture. This is dampening in cutting major state funding to artist considered to have any element or hint of Scottishness. Of course Scots are not the only ones affected by the London effect nor is this the only state that behaves in this way (France). But to claim that Scots will less quality art is to high light the writer’s general contempt for Scotland’s culture in general, as they coonsider it as being by nature as LOW quality. How is this not cultural prejudice? To condem a culture and its art before it’s even been produced.

    • ChezzyHi

      Really? Because the Scottish National Theatre seem to be doing rather well attracting subsidies for its pro-Indy work. A loose formless documentary called We Are Northern Lights is getting exposure largely for its nattery. Undistinguished writers such as Alan Bissett has rocketed from obscurity to platformed opportunities. The dismal National Collective have yet to produce anything worthwhile but get plenty of Yes support

  • Jacques Strap


  • Ahnon IMaus

    Tamas Marcuis wrote:
    “to claim that Scots will less quality art is to high light the writer’s general contempt for Scotland’s culture in general”

    Are we reading the same article? Nowhere can I see the article denigrating Scottish culture.

    The only things that Scottish nationalists have turned into art-form is their paranoia, whining and anti-English racism.

  • Peter Arnott

    What bitter, extraordinary cobblers even by your standards.

  • When I was a child we made our own art.

  • C.U. Jimmy

    With any luck those cannons will backfire. The path to success in the Scottish arts is to be an enthusiastic yes – a supporter of an aggressively evangelical campaign run by the most boorish man ever. How utterly depressing.

  • Good article, but you miss why Ataturk did what he did. He lead the intellectual, philosphical, and governmental revolution in Turkey, taking it from an Islamic-dominated cesspool to a modern, Westernized, non-Islamic republic. There’s not quite that need for a cultural offensive in Scotland.

    • Nicholas I

      Ataturk was a jew.

  • al skinner

    Where do I even begin to dissect ignorance and prejudice this thick?
    Driven by your own rightist ideology, you spew out a heap of speculative vitriol onto the internet. The reality is that an indy Scotland looks likely to be a far more balanced society than it has had the opportunity to be as a semi-colonial subnational unit of the UK.
    You are, I’m quite sure, not aware of the massive grassroots movement that is currently transforming Scotland. It is empowering people from all walks of life to get involved and make their voice heard. Artists of all kinds are playing a prominent role in this, and – crucially – they are far from all fans of the SNP.
    There is a temporary coalition of forces within Scotland in order to achieve independence. But once that’s done, you will see many radical voices raised against whoever is in power after the 2016 elections. Hint: that may not be the SNP.

    • SouthOhioGipper

      Yeah. It’ll all be a grand party. Until the capital flight begins and we neoliberals around the world pool our resources and crush your economy into the dirt by simply refusing to do business with you. Why would any foreign investor want to open a factory in a nation that will steal that factory out from under them at any time?

      No one will do business with a socialist scotland. No one will loan you money. Any money you print will be worthless. Enjoy socialism in one state.

  • SophiaPangloss

    Poisonous piss, I expected nothing less here, but the inaccuracy of this piece is highlighted by mention of Scotland’s ‘foreign minister’ in a devolved parliament *without responsibility for foreign affairs*…
    Daniel Jackson, back of the class.

  • S. C. Price

    Actually, if there is a “yes” vote, within 6 months Salmond will be the most hated man in Scotland when the effects of his ill-conceived independence are felt

  • Ken

    How the English establishment uses every weapon in its power – even arts journalism – to strangle Scots independence. Clearly the writer has been hired to parrot the right wing, neo liberal line favoured by the Spectator. Pathetic.

  • Nicholas I

    Chutzpah: This clown criticising agitprop in an agitprop article.

  • Nicholas I

    Urinalism: “Aidan Moffat, a hairy man in his forties…”