Without a healthy cultural life there is no self-determination, nobody to imagine nationhood, to generate an image of who we might have been, of who we are, and of what we might like to become, writes Neil Mulholland
I got an artistic licence
Twenty quid for a colour
Five quid for a black ‘n’ white’
- John Cooper Clarke
Recent changes to public entertainment licensing not only debilitate the professional and semi-professional ‘cultural sector’ in Scotland, they undermine the very idea that all Scottish citizens can and should freely participate in the production and consumption of ‘culture’. The intention to license free public events seriously threatens to derail the outcome of the independence referendum by handing a trump card to a hitherto unlikely voice of Unionism: Scotland’s artists, musicians, actors and writers.
No strangers to the politics of culture, Labour bought wholesale into the myth of cultural entepreneurialism once proffered by bloviators such as Richard Florida and Charles Leadbeater. The cultural economy was their answer to the r-UK’s perilous running-on-empty post-industrialism. The global economic crash has thoroughly discredited such utilitarian and neo-liberal approaches to cultural governance and removed Labour from power into the bargain. North of the border, we have a chance to reject bogus ideas of ‘Culture’ as a kind of unproblematised national identity, as the legitimation of a limited communities and customs as a centripetal unifying force, as ‘entertainment’, a sector of the economy, a type of entrepreneurialism. Scotland has, uniquely at this point in history, a chance to break with the warped logic of the cultural economy and 19th century cultural nationalism alike and instead enable genuine cultural democracy.
Unfortunately, post-Labour Scotland is not at the vanguard in finding ways out of the cultural malaise that the cultural economy has left behind. On the contrary, it would seem that we are faced with something far worse. Not only do we have a renewed fixation with the role that culture can play in developing the economy rather than in, say, how our understanding of ‘work’ may be subjectivised differently, we have full, unfettered state intervention in culture in the form of a state-corporatist intolerance of ‘unlicensed’ activities.
The idea that the Scottish Parliament can legislate what is and is not culture is laughable and reveals the provincial character of the SNP when it comes to cultural politics and the politics of culture. It shows a failure to grasp what Michael Gardiner has called ‘The Cultural Roots of British Devolution’ – that independence is not social, political or economic, but cultural. Without a healthy cultural life there is no self-determination, nobody to imagine nationhood, to generate an image of who we might have been, of who we are, and of what we might like to become. In a stateless nation like Scotland, culture has long been the way that politics has manifested itself. Politics is symbolic in Scotland, since, until 1999 at least, there were no other channels to present a politics of self-determination. Symbolic capital, in the form of mutual reciprocity and gift economics, is as paramount here in politics as it is in the arts. This is why so much of Scotland’s arts are grassroots, bottom-up, there has been no ‘top’ to oppress down, or at least, none close enough to these activities to take any interest in them. Culture in Scotland is decentralised and will remain so, in spite of the government’s blundering over the wording of this act. This is what makes Scotland different to highly centralised states such as France and England and this is what we must focus on nourishing if we really want to live in a different type of nation state.
‘Culture’ is the locus of the SNP’s case of independence. The economy plays a part, yes, but the debate around the economy is unpredictable and unmappable. Scotland may or may not be financially better off if it went it alone, we will never really know. The independence argument has to be won on cultural grounds, that Scots would benefit from cultural independence, from cultural self-determination as a nation-state. I have no doubt that this is true and that supporting such a position involves acceptance of the enculturalisation of politics in Scotland. I have doubts, however, about the SNP’s ability to conceive of culture as anything beyond a point-scoring, opportunistic stunt aimed at undermining Unionism. I don’t decry such stunts in a political context, they are well played on the whole against an unworthy Unionist opponent, but they are generally caricatures of Scottishness. They should not be mistaken for the broader cultural landscape in Scotland.
Culture, to paraphrase the great Welsh scholar Raymond Williams, is ordinary. Culture is what we do, it’s how we live our lives, it’s not something separate or just relevant to ‘the arts’. Economics is cultural (a ritualistic, symbolic representation of wealth), politics is cultural, sport is cultural….. To think that ‘culture’ can be separated out from other activities and monetised as ‘entertainment’ is to fail to grasp the inate ordinariness of culture.
There has been an angry outcry from across the arts in Scotland regarding the Scottish Government’s intention to licence free events – and rightly so. The backlash has focused around two arguments:
The first argument is that the grassroots is where artists learn their trade, it’s where they sow the seeds of greater things. So, in the Scottish press we hear much of Franz Ferdinand’s much mythologised apprenticeship at the Chateau in Glasgow and, perhaps if the journalist isn’t quite so lazy, the story of Django Django establishing the Embassy in Edinburgh. Certainly, there’s no doubt about this, you have to start somewhere and the arts scenes in Scotland’s cities are fertile ground for new arts of international importance. But why do we have to focus on the perceived ‘success’ of Scotland’s more ‘famous’ artists to legitimatise the very existence of the arts? This is a bit like saying that we need chip shops to ensure the market for Michelin-star Dauphinoise. We don’t, we need chip shops because people like chips. We can enjoy chips and also enjoy Dauphinoise. We have a right to all of these things as part of the rich fabric of culture. Why does there have to be a ‘product’? Culture is a process, an event, not an outcome. Why does it have to relate to the promotion of a particular area of Scotland? Scotland isn’t just Glasgow and Edinburgh, culture is produced everywhere and should be subject to the same levels of attention, protection and assistance.
Many people, artists or not, establish cultural activities in Scotland – readings, meetings, workshops, talks, events, exhibitions – that are freely accessible. They do this voluntarily, for no payment and expect no financial return. There’s no need for this activity to be justified in terms of it being a seedbed for tomorrow’s top talent. It’s better to state, simply, that this is our birthright, our human right to culture. The United Nation’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights enshrines this right, the right to freely participate in culture and to do so without interference or approval from the state. This right is infringed by the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government is attempting to determine who can participate in citizenship by demanding that local councils licence our activities (against their will it would seem). We all have the right to participate and to citizenship and we must hold our government to account for seeking to deny us this right.
The second argument is that the bill will kill off the arts, that people will stop freely participating in culture, that they will cancel events and move to a country where culture is valued and encouraged. My feeling is that the bill will not cripple the arts, on the contrary it already seems to have galvanized an otherwise diverse and fractious sector of the Scottish populace. The arts will simply have no choice but to operate illegally. This is an absurd situation, one that is reminiscent of Swift’s Modest Proposal. Culture cannot be legislated for or against – the arts will continue without licences for how can anyone cancel culture, how might we outlaw the arts? Councils are powerless to pursue ‘perpetrators of culture’ if any and every act we partake in is cultural. Let’s apply for licences for any and all of the ‘public’ and ‘entertaining’ aspects of our everyday lives – every council across Scotland will be swamped with paperwork. The law is an ass, it is unworkable. It’s up to the arts to prove this by taking affirmative action against licencing by overloading the system to breaking point.
The bill in anathema to cultural traits that the SNP would like to promote, the idea of Scots solidarity, of the democratic intellect that allegedly marks a split with Anglo-British solipsism and possessive individualism. These national imaginaries, if they have any power or currency at all, will quickly bite the hand that feeds. The SNP have made a grave error in offending the nation’s artists, writers and musicians for, not only are they famously resourceful and imaginative in their protest, they have a voice that is heard far beyond Scotland’s borders and they will be heard very loudly and very clearly. If the SNP are serious about separation, their assault on culture must be immediately repealed.
Much damage has been done by the SNP’s failure to grasp the basic infrastructure of Scottish culture, the cultural communities of practice typical of small self-reliant nations. If the SNP want to remain in power beyond the next Holyrood election, they must make amends and go further than simply repeal the act. The Scottish Government must make it easier for people to participate in culture, for more free events to happen freely. They need to devolve culture in a way that engages citizenship. The grassroots are where this already happens. They simply need to recognise this and legislate with their health in mind, incentivising local council’s to open up their empty buildings for cultural activities for peppercorn rents, helping councils support health and safety at small events and encouraging people to produce their own culture. This is the true meaning of self-determination, without it, there is no ‘Scottish independence.’