Thursday, 19 June 2014

Scotland risks deep splits with bitter independence debate

Towards the end of April, acclaimed composer James MacMillan – I can heartily recommend his hauntingly beautiful Miserere, a successor to Allegri’s masterpiece – wrote, in a somewhat withering essay in The Scotsman that he, along with other prominent Scottish artists, were keen to keep their views on Scottish independence private.

The main target of his piece (found here) were those Scottish artists who have aligned themselves with the Yes campaign, and failed, in his view, to consider, or understand, the full implications of such a decision – or to be willing to countenance the views of others.

In the crucial passage of his essay, he warns:

‘Youthful idealism or patriotism can sometimes give succour to dark, lurking forces in our collective psyche… artists can be good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking’.

He mentions, in particular, the National Collective, the pro-independence alliance of artists.

‘A visit to their website shows them to be young, shouty and completely unquestioning about their cause. Some worry that their black-and-white perspective on things may damage the quality of their work. Some of their poetry seems risible and thin, and certainly light on nuance and subtlety. Are they simply producing propaganda masquerading as art?’

Singled out for criticism was the writer Alan Bissett and his ‘monologue Vote Britain’ in which he, MacMillan claims, stereotypes ‘the English “Establishment” and Conservative voters’ – a typical passage reads:

‘Vote for Robert Burns being called by Paxman ‘sentimental doggerel.
Vote for The Iron Lady. Such a strong leader, gave this country backbone
(you didn’t really want the unions, industries or council homes, just made the place look tatty’).

The full poem can be found here

MacMillan detects ‘crass rabble-rousing’ in the piece and says Bissett’s earlier work is ‘much better’. And he warns that artists such as Bissett ‘are putting off the whole debate and having a negative effect on everyone else too’. Indeed, he compares artists’ commitment to the Yes campaign with the Scottish 20th century poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s flirtation with Fascism.

It was hardly surprising that MacMillan’s caustic text prompted quite a reaction. Bissett replied:

‘If MacMillan believes art and politics shouldn’t mix, that’s up to him, although I would find it odd if Scottish artists had nothing to say about the seismic changes their country is undergoing. For me, the world would be poorer place without the likes of Orwell, Steinbeck, Atwood, Zepheniah, Angelou, Morrison, Loach, Picasso and countless others politicising their art to challenge the official narratives of the powerful. In this case, the powerful is an increasingly cold, elitist and unequal British state, which the majority of artists believe Scotland, if given the chance, can improve upon.’

How he can be sure what the ‘majority of artists in Scotland’ believe, I am not entirely sure.

It is not hard to castigate MacMillan in going so far as to suggest that supporting the SNP was backing ‘evil’ or approximating Fascism. And surely he did not mean to imply that art should never be political. But, his warning about the dangers public figures face when putting their heads above the parapet in this debate has to be taken seriously. It was explicitly highlighted last week when Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, announced she was backing the No campaign, in the process giving the cause £1million. The writer was subjected to a vile torrent of abuse, Ms Rowling being called a ‘Union cow bag’, a ‘traitor’ and a ‘whore’. One wrote on Twitter, with almost impressive colour, ‘fuck jk Rowling and that wee gadge harry potter’.

And just last week, though less noticed outside of Scotland, Alex Salmond’s own senior political adviser, Campbell Gunn, was drawn into this ugly side of campaigning after Clare Lally, a mother of two-year-old twin girls, one of whom has cerebral palsy, found herself under attack for speaking at a Better Together campaign.

Ms Lally, who became a ‘Carers Champion’ in the  Scottish Labour back in 2012, appeared the conference saying she was ‘just an ordinary mum from Clydebank campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK’ and she explained how grateful she was to health care workers for the attention her daughter received.

Mr Gunn, however, wrote an email to the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish political editor Simon Johnson saying: ‘You are no doubt aware that the “mother-of-two” who described herself as “just a normal person” …. is actually a member of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally’: so, by implication, not a normal person at all and certainly not one allowed to have the normal right to an opinion.. Similar accusations appeared on a Nationalist website and, predictably, Ms Lally received typical abuse on Twitter.

Perhaps she should have been more open about her Labour links, but she is not elected and – in speaking about her experience with her own children, surely her views are perfectly valid? Furthermore, she is not, in fact, related to Pat Lally at all. Mr Gunn, who admits to making a mistake, still denies trying to discredit Ms Lally by suggesting she wasn’t such an ordinary mum after all. It is hard, however, to come up with any other explanation for his rushing into such a crass mistake.

Throughout the campaign, the level of debate has never been great – altogether too ‘shouty’, simplistic, negative and patronising on both sides – but with this level of abuse, any sensible discussion is becoming severely restricted. And are we beginning to see that in the development of such polarised opinions, potentially more damaging splits, with long-term implications, are being nurtured in Scottish society and between the English and Scots? That a No campaigner can be depicted as a traitor for simply holding a different opinion is a shocking intrusion in what should be a civilised debate, especially on such a crucial issue. We are in danger of creating deep fissures between peoples who have lived together, in amity and rivalry, for centuries.

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