I am really looking forward to the Edinburgh Festival this year, which will of course be dominated by the aftermath of the independence referendum.
The show which will cause most ripples will of course be the scathing farce called “le Mabida Imaginaire”, based roughly on Beaumarchais via Molière and a nod to Mozart.
Act 1 is taken from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, in which a ludicrous individual called Salmond pumps himself up with outlandish pride; in this he is joined by diverse comic characters such as his sycophantic manservant Lickspittle Wishnot and his airheaded but shrewish sister, Pepsicola Dudgeon.
Act 2 is in the same vein, but resumes after Salmond has failed in his political goals, and relates more closely to Don Juan. Goaded on by his sinister friend, Stewart Sneermeister, and far from accepting defeat gracefully, Salmond takes his folly to still more ridiculous levels as he declares himself to be like Nelson Mandela, and dons blackface accordingly.
The resolution comes about when he looks in a mirror, and his reflection speaks in Comandatore terms as the real Mandela, and tells him not to be a fool. Salmond sees the light, and accepts a place in the new UK Senate of Nations and Regions (formerly the House of Lords).
Of course, this production will never really happen.
Nor will a radical production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, in which the debate over the future of a territory is decided by what is best economically rather than what is sentimentally longed for.
And neither will Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead write poems which attempt to bring the country’s people together behind the outcome of their will to stay part of the UK. Nor will any of Scotland’s classical, rock, pop or folk composers and artists come forward with a symphony or suite or album which praises those who delivered a No vote. Or even an opera buffa based on the above libretto.
At this point it is worth recalling my own limited experience in my modest field of poetry. At an open mic during the referendum campaign, the host suggested that if poets cannot discuss issues of this importance, then who can? The response was telling. One poet stood up at the mike and declaimed “I am voting Yes because I hate the f***ing Tories”; another suggested that there could be no debate because “where the f*** could you get anyone to speak for No?” (I put my hand up, but he ignored it.)
And since the Scottish people decided, we have had quite a few young poets with their rapping along the lines of “I was there in the Skwerr/ When we learned that no-one cared/And no-one voted for their freedom/And we all knew they had been leaned on…”
The fact is that Scotland’s creative and cultural sectors are now choosing to put themselves in the pocket of the SNP and the Scottish Government. The question is why this should be the case, and especially as much of the sector benefited so much from the unionist politics it so despises.
One of the great joys of life in, for example, Glasgow has been its arts facilities and programmes, which have received generous funding from the Labour City Council. Indeed, the left-wing nature of many community arts and events such as MayDaze (and earlier Mayfest) has in the past been of the one-working- class-one-struggle kind. Its main targets were the Tory governments of the day.
But it seems that the radical counterculture is now in the pocket of the establishment. (A notable exception must be made of the late David MacLennan, who was prepared to make the case for unity but sadly died of MND three months before the referendum.) There may be two reasons for this.
First, the continuing illusion – for example amongst my fellow open mic poets –that the SNP is not the establishment, when nothing could be further from the truth.
They have been in government now for eight years, half of that time courtesy of support from the Annabel Goldie and her Tories. They occupy seats in every legislature and every council. They have sycophantic mouthpieces in the Scottish media. The First Minster is a career politician who has wanted no other career since she was a teenager, her predecessor has a House of Commons pension as well as fat Holyrood salary.
Secondly, it is the case that the SNP has built an artistic and cultural client state which is now used to fawning to its whims. I witnessed an insight into this at last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Between the sets of the charming and remarkable American boogie-woogie pianist Stephanie Trick, we had to put up with a dreary singer-songwriter.
She also volunteered that she and friends from her village had been paid a government grant to spend a week at a highland castle to write music. Which is all very well until one considers that Scotland in 2014 (and 2015) had and has foodbanks and people in real need. In which case, sorry, but weeks away for musicians to do what they could at home seems a bit of a luxury.
So were they writing pro-SNP songs? Who knows, but it is pretty certain that they would not writing anti-government songs. After all, we know that the Government’s grant-giving process is absolutely capricious, from the story of the Scottish Youth Theatre.
Having delegated responsibility for grants to Creative Scotland, the then First Minister Alex Salmond intervened directly to overturn its decision on the funding of the Scottish Youth Theatre, to the tune of £1 million. Every arts company in Scotland now knows about that, and will be aware that the reverse also applies: what the SNP Scottish Government giveth, the First Minister can take away. In fact, there is known to be at least one major figure in the arts who constrains their political comments on the grounds that not only their own funding might be affected, but also that of others involved in joint projects.
In this compromised situation, how can artists proceed – damned if they do, servile if they don’t? The answer as in all dilemmas is to Do The Right Thing and be damned for it, rather than living to regret doing the wrong thing through cowardice.
One of the real pleasures I have had recently is to hear poet Tom Leonard read, for two reasons.
First, I was delighted to hear him say “I am not a Nationalist: I use Scots as a lexis when it is useful. It is just a lexis.”
The other reason was that I was reminded of Leonard’s poem Blair’s Britain. This is an excoriating critique of the New Labour years: when I discussed it with a friend who had worked in government at the time he reflected: ‘it is not exactly a hymn of praise for the National Minimum Wage, rising employment, falling poverty and record investment in the NHS, is it?’
Nor should it be. If poets and artists are to fulfil the role Shelley set out for them as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” they should be offering critiques and alternatives to the government and the established politics of the day, which in Scotland is the SNP and its narrow mean-minded vision and paltry achievement.
So can we look forward to Liz Lochhead’s Sturgeon’s Scotland? Certainly not: she has joined the SNP. Or will we have Scottish singer-songwriters ripping into the establishment like Scottish Bob Dylans or Elvis Costellos? It seems not, as they held a pro-government rally at the Usher Hall on the eve of the referendum, like the ideologically neutered musicians of the USSR Union of Composers. Can we expect Alistair Gray to be a Scottish Günter Grass, employing magic realism to satirise a gullible personality cult based on Oor Nicola? No, he spreads the myth that “Scotland was robbed of independence (sic) in 1979.”
What is more, some of Scotland’s artists take perverse pride in their indifference to the shortcomings of the independence case. As an example, we can take children’s author Mairi Hedderwick. She told Desert Island Discs “I’m not interested in the economics and the politics of it, it’s the culture of it that really would make me very happy if we could become independent.”
It is hard to believe that all writers and artists in Scotland are likewise so selfish and narcissistic as to put their own interest above that of the general well-being of the people of Scotland. But the dissenting voices are few and far between, and risk the wrath of the Scottish Government’s culture client-state.
This is in fact is all the more reason for them to speak up sooner rather than later.
Let’s have some anti-SNP diatribes, let’s have the le Mabida Imaginaire. Let’s have Sturgeon’s Scotland. Let’s have a real dissident arts scene in Scotland which rejects the Chekovian self-delusion of the Scottish Government . Artists have nothing to lose but their establishment chains, by choosing freedom over independence on the SNP’s terms – which is not independence at all.