by George Gunn
The idea of the man who as Chancellor of the Exchequer oversaw the financial collapse of 2008 trying to scare the people of Scotland into voting “No” in the 2014 referendum is, frankly, ridiculous. Alistair Darling, along with Gordon Brown and the rest of the New Labour gang, sanctioned the largest transfer of wealth from the public purse to the private sector that the UK has ever seen. All this in the name of financial stability: stability for the financial industry equals poverty for the taxpayer. This wealth transfer has consolidated a programme of fiscal oppression and infrastructure budget slashing unprecedented since the end of World War Two. The incoming Tory regime could hardly believe their luck. Destroy every civil liberty and social benefit generations have fought and struggled for and blame it on Labour. And no one goes to jail, naturally, except the poor who fall into so much poverty that they resort to crime or do away with themselves.
It has the same political smell as the mid 1970’s when the Arabs realised that the Americans, when it came to oil, were a bunch of lying, cheating snake-oil salesmen and subsequently hiked-up the price of crude. The Scottish people are not the simple minded, forgetful, short sighted children Alistair Darling and the political establishment imagine them to be. Far from it: the Scots are shrewd, compassionate, sophisticated if somewhat judgemental and with long memories. The Scots, for example, have not forgotten 1979 and as much as Alistair Darling and his Tory chums may like to think this episode can go the same way as that rigged referendum with its 40% clause the proposed referendum in 2014 will be a different affair. There is also the business of 2008 and the banking bail-out. Now we have evidence of major fraud within the banking system itself which will come as no surprise to many. If this rotten business is what the British state is passing off as economics then the Scots may well decide that we are better off in our own state where we can attempt, at least, to create a fair and productive economic system with the welfare of our people at its heart.
But I don’t think independence has ever been about economics: it is far more important than that. It is about the future and the UK is, as everyone suspects, broke and heading for the dustbin of history. That is not a glib thing to write for the signs are there for anyone to interpret if they have the eyes to see. The beginning of the UK, for Scotland, was a shotgun wedding and there was no popular vote on the Treaty of Union – the people of Scotland did not have a say. The London government has, ever since, been hostile to any inklings of Scottish independence. The power mongers have tried to stifle it on every occasion it has raised its head. They only embraced devolution because it was about retaining power and it was politically expedient to do so. To call the late Donald Dewar “the father of the nation”, as is now the lazy fashion, is to do his true memory no service. If we are to remember him then let it be for his core Unionism and human compassion and not some invented desire for Scottish self-determination.
Despite what the political pundits say I think the argument for independence is a cultural one, because no-one in Scotland believes a word any politician says about economics. The current collective party confusion and political reluctance to do very much about Barclays, RBS and the gangsters in the banks is a case in point. They talk about bringing criminal charges but then they would have to arrest themselves much as the Metropolitan police had to do over the phone hacking scandal. At the centre of it all is wealth inequality: that great social divergence where the rich are getting richer and everybody else gets poorer with no voices articulating the essential dialectical kink at the heart of capitalism. They are all complicit in the corruption. Which raises the question: why are the SNP so bad at culture?
Time and time again Alex Salmond has proven that he prefers populism to poetry which I think is a huge mistake, because the Scots, like the Russians for example, are at heart a poetic people. Disney “isnae” going to do it for us. Successful actors who live in America are not going to do it either. Delighting in the success of the NTS production of “Black Watch” as “being worth a hundred trade fairs” does not display a disposition to understanding what Scottish culture is and the role of the arts in expressing that culture. Managing the imagination of a country – which is what Creative Scotland are doing and what the ongoing stooshie over funding is all about – will reduce our poetry to pixels and turn our talent into tabloids. Our culture is one of the true measures of our credibility as a nation and it is how we are known internationally. It is also the most reliable means of understanding ourselves. It is the honest indicator of our identity as Scots, Europeans and our right to enjoy what Mike Scott of The Waterboys has called “the world party”.
Whether it is Alex Salmond on one side or Alistair Darling on the other what these men desire is power: power established in Edinburgh or power retained in London. But to put Hamlet in front of the mirror yet again for a moment: that is not the question. The real question is: how are we to live in this new country we must create if we are to live at all?
The important role in the 1980’s and 90’s of writers in particular and artists in general in stirring the public energy towards the establishment of the Holyrood parliament has somehow been forgotten by both the political establishment and the artistic community. The politicians usually take the view that there are no votes in culture so now it is a case of what the arts can do for government rather than the other way around. For the artistic community, increasingly, the promotion of the self has driven out the greater consciousness which concerns itself with art in relation to the society which produces it. The children of Thatcher’s children take it as natural that marketing is the form which frames the content. Recently I read of a young theatre maker who said that their job was to concentrate on “creativity” as opposed to the “political”. That somehow for an artist, especially a theatre maker, the creative act and political awareness are separate; that the social and economic conditions of the time have little bearing on what the creative process produces, that they are not linked. This is plainly absurd. Yet it is the normal position for those who are starting out on their journey in what is now called “creative industries”.
The result of all of this is that most young writers and artists are terrified of saying anything at all. They know that the financial consequences will be severe. Instead of looking at the modern world and seeing the greed and cynicism of Tory Britain as something abhorrent they perceive it as a role model. Money is the measure. This is why Darling and the No campaign have nothing to talk about in relation to Scotland’s future other than money. It is how they measure out fear, the same fear of failure which makes marketeers out of our young artists and passive receivers and consumers out of the rest of us. It is why we live in an inarticulate age.
In drama dialogue is how information is passed on. If there is no real dialogue in the public theatre of political interaction then the majority will receive no meaningful information and therefore be unable to form sound judgements or make brave decisions and will seek solace in the material world and in looking after number one. This is also how our civil rights and social securities fall from us like leaves off a tree. Poor housing is as much a product of fear as bad art.
So there is currently no optimistic balance, just a flat-line of pessimism. If as a nation we cannot create poetry that challenges the “this is the way it is” school of normalists – as MacDiarmid challenged them in the 1920’s and 30’s – those who fill the media with their dismal orthodoxy, then what can we actually make? Alternative art and alternative energy both require cultural confidence. If our writers and artists are not asking the questions the politicians and media will not ask then where is our confidence to come from?
The hell-comic notion of Alistair Darling using the fear of the future as a reason to stay in the United Kingdom, when the do-lally casino capitalism he helped create will ensure that any future, any relationship with London bankerism is going to be bleak: this is the Mistero Buffo world of Dario Fo. If Scotland had a Dario Fo he would have great difficulty getting his play put on in any theatre in Scotland at this time because decisions are taken by managers not by dreamers with a passion for the truth. Fear runs deep.
Instilling courage, some radicalism, into our artists (is this impossible?) would, I believe, be transmitted to our people. Is this the true meaning of devolution? Just how far away from revolution is devolution? Is it just one letter? No amount of cynically generated fear can prevent the inevitable from happening. In the end it is the people of Scotland who will decide what is “inevitable”. If our artistic community does not embrace the true meaning of the word “brave” – and reject Walt Disney – then they might find themselves pixelated out of the political and historical process. Do I contradict myself? Then let me plead mitigation and quote Walt Whitman,
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
All I contain is questions. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, that Darling of fear, wants us all to feel tiny. He has no answers.
© George Gunn 2012