Classism photo
The 1990’s was the era when popular culture was co-opted by the establishment. The resurrected brand ‘Cool Britannia’ existed to provide advocacy and endorsement to political figures. Bands and arts figures became vessels of the Labour Party; staring vacuously and wide-eyed from TVs, magazines and papers and all carried along on a wave of vapid Blairite sound bite.

Damon Albarn of Blur later opined that, “It was totally cynical. They were trying to use our energy to the greater glory of New Labour.” It wasn’t quite the day that music died, but it was a clear indication that the arts could be bought, either by funding or by promise.

The independence referendum, casting long shadows as it does over every aspect of Scottish discourse, democracy and culture cannot escape the attentions of a media which is eager to pin labels on figures of popular culture and the arts. For some unfathomable reason it deems it important what “celebrity” thinks, but this is a real opportunity for creatives to seize back control of their image, find their teeth, their voices and make them count.

Joyce McMillan, writing in The Scotsman, was roundly criticised by advocates of a No vote for mooting the idea that artists were more progressive and therefore more amenable to at least a creative exploration of the possibilities and the opportunities a yes vote could create and that the yes movement had captured the attention of more creatives than that of the no campaign. She evidenced this with grassroots organisations like the National Collective. That there are creatives on the no side who are happy to accept the Westminster pathway, there is no doubt, but they currently have no voice or little input to the debate.

Culturally, at least, the Yes campaign seems like a movement, where discordant voices are happy to set difference aside to harmoniously explore the alternative options a yes vote can bring; in effect, lending their creative talent to the campaign. Conversely, the No campaign boasts no similar movement. Even an appearance by the flautist Eddie McGuire on Newsnight Scotland couldn’t convince that the creatives’ No campaign was as organic or advanced as that of the pro-independence movement and seems to rely rather more on celebrity lending their credentials or their name than their creative skill sets.

Last week a Huffington Post blog by Sarah McCorquodale caused great consternation – especially on the pro-independence side – with a piece which displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the cultural scene in Scotland and stated unequivocally that Scottish Culture must be kept separate from the independence push.

The suggestion that Scottish cultural life is overshadowed by the independence referendum to its detriment and that culture is undergoing a hiatus or regression finds little resonance in the burgeoning music, spoken and written word and theatrical scenes in Scotland. Nor does her article take cognisance of the opinions of those artists themselves.

Sarah McCorquodale has not been resident in Scotland for a number of years and seems to display a disturbing slant toward that at-a-distance and establishment ignorance of Scottish culture displayed occasionally by ex-pats, whether they live in Corby or Perth, Australia, which fails to identify progress and has Scottish culture frozen at the point in history when they moved away.

A Guardian article last year attempted to chart the journey of progressive culture and arts resulting from devolution to now. BBC Radio Scotland’s Vic Galloway confirmed the real existence of a cultural journey, “Many musicians are embracing their Scottishness. It’s not about tartan, bagpipes and shortbread, but a contemporary forward-thinking Scotland that isn’t afraid to sing its own accent and embrace its own culture”.

Next year’s Edinburgh International Festival – that establishment doyenne – was an opportunity to challenge that; an opportunity for one of the world’s largest arts festivals to explore the dialogue, the creativity and the seismic shift this debate is having on the Scottish sense of self. As well as the more simple arguments about democracy, the independence referendum forces us Scots to investigate who we are and how important identity is to us.

In an article in the Scotland on Sunday last week, the Creative Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Sir Jonathan Mills put paid to suggestions that next year’s festival would include any work investigating any of these themes. Instead the Festival is to be complicit in perpetuating the establishment myth that an unprecedented celebration of the start of World War 1 and celebrating the Commonwealth is of more cultural significance than our biggest political decision in 300 years – all whilst remaining apolitical.

If there is one thing that those of all sides of the referendum should agree on, it is that this decision is about looking forward to what we can be and whether that is best served within the confines of the status quo or not. Whilst not ignoring the lessons of past and the pointless waste of generations of men from around the world for the might of imperialism and folly, we certainly shouldn’t make them a central plank of how we move forward as a country together. I am sure the irony of celebrating the last remaining vestiges of imperialism concurrently with the war that set in motion the veritable dissolution of the British Empire will occur to many.

Had Sir Jonathan Mills wanted to combine both these themes with Scotland’s current place in a world of much smaller states as a result of both the first World War, the second, and how independence could or should change our relationship with the Commonwealth, the gap in relevancy would’ve been bridged. Instead his decision has reinforced the position that the Festival is the ultimate facade for establishmentarianism.
The decision not to include the independence debate has puzzled many in the arts, its fringes and on all sides of the debate. The opportunity for culture to provide a powerful way of exploring political genres and ideas has been lost. The EIF with a large percentage a of its budget derived from the public purse has the capital and surely the obligation to make thought provoking and discursive works which could push the boundaries in what by then may be a very fractious debate. Instead the Festival displays a heavy handed and restrictive top down approach in deciding what should be culture instead of a bottom up exploration of what is culture.

Therein lies the rub, who does the Edinburgh International Festival cater to? Sir Jonathan Mills’ suggestion that the Fringe may be the better place to cater for works aimed at engagement in the independence debate may provide the more enlightening explanation behind his decision than any suggestion that it would suit the establishment position to expound a sense of Britishness in the run up to the referendum. Is it preferable to believe that the Festival more guilty of classism than it is of politicising culture, with public money?

The Fringe with all its whizz bang and wonderful idiosyncrasies is not the establishment, but the brash sibling in the gaudy lip stick and fishnet tights. Undoubtedly there is crossover in audience, but the fringe is the more affordable and less self-satisfied of the two. That Sir Jonathan Mills thinks that is where the debate on independence solely belongs – unfunded by the state – suggests a classism and elitism at the heart of decision making. The Festival is part and parcel of the establishment, and it clearly finds the referendum somewhat wanting.

The Festival consistently appeals more – or is accessible to more – of those in the top % of society – the same, I’m alright types, who are aspirational for self and doing very nicely out of the union, thank you. Perhaps the independence debate simply isn’t as important to them because they cannot see an angle or relevancy for themselves. It is no coincidence that consistent polling trends identify that preserving the union is more important to those in the top earning brackets. Perhaps the International Festival is more interested in reflecting them, and not the interests and cultural aspects of wider Scottish society.

Or perhaps Joyce McMillan is right and cultural engagement favours a yes vote. Perhaps the establishment are concerned that communing with the independence debate will find that a yes vote resonates rather better than a no, and where would that leave the establishment?

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