Artists for Independence?


Ben Judge, who runs the Edinburgh festival review magazine, ‘Fest’ has written exploring the issue of why there isn’t more focus on the independence referendum at the festival (‘Scotland the Brave?’) :

It is strange that at the world’s most famous arts festival, taking place in the heart of the Scottish capital and comprising some 2,871 different shows, it requires work and patience to find any indication that the independence referendum is a mere thirteen months away. Indeed, it is possible to count comfortably the number of independence-minded productions on the fingers of one hand. So why is it that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights seem so disengaged—at least creatively—from the debate?

That’s just not true. So there must be something else going on.

The truth is that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights aren’t disengaged at all  – as Unstated and the slew of Yes-supporting artists has shown (TradYes being the most recent). The theatre critic Joyce McMillan has even noted here:

Among practising artists, it’s a long time since I heard anyone express a definite intention to vote “no”. The only exception that comes to mind is the playwright, artist and general genius John Byrne, who is so incensed by the Scottish Government’s blanket ban on smoking on stage that he refuses to consider voting “yes”. For the rest, the young National Collective group of artists and writers for independence seems to be recruiting new members by the hour; and almost all the main creative voices – from our national Makar Liz Lochhead to singer/musicians like Karine Polwart and Pat Kane – are either offering strong support to the “yes” campaign, or declaring themselves “don’t knows”.

In August 2011 the Observer asked five writers their views on independence and was slightly embarrassed and surprised when they all came back in favour of a Yes vote (‘Scotland and England: what future for the Union?’). Iain Banks, David Greig, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, Shena McKay all articulated strong, non-nationalist reasons for independence.

Banks wrote shortly before his death of how he’d wished to see Scotland an independent country. He wrote:

The system we have at the moment does not reflect the way Scots really feel. It does sometimes come down to very specific issues: I’ve talked to a number of Scottish writers in particular, and we all felt that we would vote for independence purely never to be part of any more unnecessary illegal, immoral wars.

The question of independence only really became germane with the end of one-nation Conservatism and the Labour party stopping being the Labour party when it became New Labour and pro-privatisation. A lot of Scots would vote for nationalism just to save our already semi-independent version of the National Health Service.

Support for independence comes from across the board from the likes of Jim Kelman, Kathleen Jamie, Irvine Welsh, Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges, who’s stated:

If the referendum was tomorrow, I’d probably vote yes. We’ve had New Labour, never worked. The coalition’s clearly not working. There’s one Tory seat in Scotland. The Tory government, they’re good for comedy, but Scotland’s clearly a different country politically, and culturally as well. It’s the third option.

Probably best to avoid constitution-by-celebrity, but clearly there’s widespread, probably disproportionate support for Yes, so there must be other, structural, cultural issues at play.

As someone commented to me on reading Ben Judge’s piece: “One answer does immediately strike me, that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the writer, is that the vast majority of shows/performers on the Fringe tend to be from elsewhere (The Fringe is, after all, the ultimate in self-invited performers.)”

This is true – and it’s one of the best and worst bits about the festival is that the world descends on Edinburgh.

But the reality is that if the leadership and directors of the festivals are not from Scotland, if the director of the National Theatre of Scotland is not from Scotland, if the director of Creative Scotland is not from Scotland if the Director of the EIF has never been from Scotland, why should we be surprised that so few of the performances are from Scotland?
This is taboo. We’re not supposed to talk about it. But we shouldn’t act all surprised.

It’s not all bad news – as Matthew Young writes today (‘Is the Edinburgh festival any good for music?‘) he set up Song by Toad partly because he was inspired by the eclectic music he saw at the festival, yet by his own admission though there’s some music from local artists this year, it’s been a struggle. See his Pale Imitation Festival here.

So some of it is about wider forces – who’s got the money to compete at the festival, some of it’s about the wider issues of the commercialisation and commodification of culture. Some of it is about the huge commissioning and pulling-power of London tv and media, and that’s just a reality. Some of it is about who’s genuinely innovating, and some of it is about who’s the best – I love the fact that the very very best of world culture lands in Scotland in August. That’s amazing.

But some of it is about issues of cultural ownership and leadership that we should look at honestly.

If you want to come and see very engaged artists discussing the issues of independence, come to the Assembly Rooms, Monday 12 August, 2.30 – go here for your tickets.

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  1. rya says:

    I personally will be performing my own pro independence fringe show entitled “Heckling Keith Farnan” which I will perform for one night only at the Underbelly at 6.30 pm. I haven’t decided which night yet.

  2. One of the principle aims of the original festival in 1947 was to bring the world’s best art and artists to Edinburgh; condescending, perhaps, but it’s why so many still have “International” in their titles.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I love the internationalism of Edinburgh during the festival, that’s not the point. We should be able to host an international event but it still be located, hosted in a place, in a cultural that’s respected. It’s not.

  3. An Duine Gruamach says:

    I saw a poster for somebody’s brilliant-good-hilarious-hooray show called “The Political Party.” Billing itself as political satire, the poster featured the comedian in question and pictures of Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, Farage, Boris and Ed Wossname. A political satire show that’s running for a month and no indication that Scottish politics will get a look-in.

  4. Douglas says:

    Mike, you’re absolutely right to link these two issues.

    But it’s even worse than that in its secondary effect, viz, why would anybody Scottish even bother applying for a top arts job in Scotland these days? Even if you could understand one of Creative Scotland’s application forms – and I’ll give anybody a tenner who is able to do that; you know, pie charts and flow charts and god knows what else on the application form for a job in the creative industries, it beggars belief, and that’s before you’ve even been asked for an interview, god knows what that must be like – you wouldn’t have the right accent for it.

    Half of Scotland lives in a dream world analogous to the Stockholm syndrome some kidnapped people go through whereby they begin to identify with their captors. The word for it is colonization, colonization, colonization, the moronic Scots being their own willing victims, an orgy of self-loathing and self-hatred which reaches a watershed moment each year in August in Edinburgh, when you have to explain to your foreign friends over visiting that there has never been a Scot at the head of International Edinburgh Festival in all these years and that the festival alienates as many people in Scotland as it draws in.

    The highlands as the hunting ground for the rich, Edinburgh as a picturesque venue for the arts, and a pipeline of black gold running from the North Sea down to the Home Counties to fund tax cuts for the millionaire government England elected. Whae’s like us?

    1. Douglas, do you seriously think you’re doing anything for your cause by arrogantly dismissing those who don’t agree with you as “morons” and “dreamers”? Are you incapable of even considering the possibility that someone who identifies as “British”, or incorporates elements of that within their own, individual social and political identity, is perhaps expressing a perspective as valid as your own? How many comparative international festivals can you name that are curated/directed by someone born in that particular country?

      1. Douglas says:


        I´m not arrogantly dismissing anyone, those are your words.

        I am expressing frustration at something which cuts across both camps of the independence debate; the board of Creative Scotland is accountable to the Scottish government after all as I understand it, and the YES campaign disowned Alisdair Gray when he spoke out at the mysterious under representation of Scots in top arts jobs in Scotland. Broadly speaking I think Gray was right.

        And yes, of course I have something to compare it with, I lived on the continent of Europe for twenty years. Do you think Catalonia´s arts bodies are run by Castilians who know nothing about Catalan culture and language? Of course they´re not!!! Ditto the Basque country and I would think the vast majority of nations, stateless or not, in the world.

        This is something unique to Scotland which is so obviously a glaring injustice that most people don’t notice it.

      2. “Half of Scotland lives in a dream world analogous to the Stockholm syndrome some kidnapped people go through whereby they begin to identify with their captors. The word for it is colonization, colonization, colonization, the moronic Scots being their own willing victims, an orgy of self-loathing and self-hatred which reaches a watershed moment each year in August in Edinburgh”

        Your words; your frustration is no excuse for such empathy-free dismissal. And suggesting I’m the one with the problem just won’t wash. You’re the one who used the word “moronic”; you’re the one who suggested they are suffering from a psychological condition, or revelling in “self-loathing” and “self-hatred”.

        I’m certainly interested in your experiences from living on continental Europe; perhaps from the start you should have forwarded those as examples, rather than just laying into some of your fellow citizens, eh?

        Sadly, we will have to disagree over Alasdair Gray; that essay was a sad, ego-centric rejection of the civic nationalism he once so eloquently expressed. In short, his argument seemed to be: those who agree with what I want to do are fine (settlers); those who disagree with what I want to do are not (colonists).

  5. Dave Coull says:

    It’s the Edinburgh INTERNATIONAL Festival, and it has never in its entire history had a Director who actually came from Scotland, but the referendum is an event of major international significance, which is already attracting a great deal of international interest, interest which can only grow and grow, and it really is quite ludicrous, that this event of major international significance is happening in Scotland, and yet, somehow, the Edinburgh Festival is managing to more-or-less ignore the elephant in the room.

  6. Albalha says:

    On the Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, including the next one, they’re all men, oh and, of course, not born in Scotland. I sort of see the point but it seems to me there’s quite a lot wrong with the EIF. The other ‘festivals’ seem more diverse in their appointments.

    The way it looks from a quick recce …… born in Austria, one in Wales, 7 in England, one in Ireland.

  7. Leigh says:

    thanks Mike,

    Perhaps those other countries retained the ‘arms-length principle’ in state funding?

    Perhaps those other countries, on the grounds of equality, fought and won against the imposition of direct political patronage – maybe they didn’t have to, or maybe their cultural governance isn’t that far down the post-political road yet?

    Perhaps those other countries didn’t lock-out that which didn’t meet the perceived market requirements of the ‘creative economy’ or that which didn’t add value to the national or regional brand?

    Perhaps those other countries aren’t so fixated with the managerialism of ‘cultural leadership’ and so they’ve retained sufficient political autonomy?

    Perhaps the problem is very much in evidence in the cross-party Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010?

    Perhaps we need to stop investing in how the symptoms present themselves and instead address the ‘taboo’ root causes : Scottish Government policy and our own agency with regard to enacting it?

    Perhaps we need to address our own opportunism in how we make the world… albeit if not under the self-selected circumstances of our own choosing.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Leigh, yes, all true, I could have developed more the aspect of the commodification of culture and you’re right to put this in the context of funding.

  8. annie says:

    Weird! I’ve just come back from travelling Europe and in EVERY single country at least 6 people I met questioned me about Scottish Independence (and I didn’t meet that many people, we zoomed through it!). From tourists from Zambia to our Catalonian brothers/sisters in arms, each and every one were genned up and willing our success (although one Catalonian sister smiled and pointed out that the only difference between us and them was that ‘they’ were ‘heavy metal’ 🙂

    I can only hope that the ‘international artists’ performing at the EF are as aware of this historical referendum as the people I met on my travels… and incorporate it into their ‘acts’. If they don’t, well, they’re not really ‘authentic troubadours, just pale, commercial imitations 🙂

    1. Dave Coull says:

      Yes, Annie, that’s my experience too, that practically everybody I meet internationally wants to talk about the prospects of Scottish independence. That being so, there is, in my opinion, undeniably clear evidence that the Edinburgh International Festival is attempting to studiously ignore the elephant in the room. In my opinion, neither the organisers nor the participants have any excuse for this. It’s just a disgrace. Every single person concerned with either organising or participation ought to hang their heads in shame.

      1. Who are you to decide what artists should create? That’s arrogant presumption, in my opinion.

        1. Dave Coull says:

          Who am I?: Everything I’ve ever written in seventy two years states clearly who I am. I’m Dave Coull. I’m not a politician, I have never had any desire to be a politician, I’m not a member of any political party, I’ve never been either a member or a supporter of any political party, and I’m not a member of any kind of governmental or bureaucratic committee of any kind. I’m not an artistic person, and I couldn’t care less about people’s artistic sensibilities. They can create whatever they like. And ignorant plebs like me can say they think it’s a load of rubbish. That’s free speech. But as for the extremely wealthy and powerful folk running the show, I think they’re a bunch of hypocritical crooks.

      2. In other words, you admit to being an uninterested individual who thinks they have a right to talk about things they know nothing about? Surely not…

  9. annie says:

    ” in my opinion, undeniably clear evidence that the Edinburgh International Festival is attempting to studiously ignore the elephant in the room.”

    Aye, and maybe we should create some ‘heavy metal’ street art protests, instead of mumpin’ oor jaws aboot it!

  10. Can I just point out that one of the big shows at this year’s EIF is “Leaving Planet Earth” (produced by the innovative, award-winning Scottish theatre company Grid Iron) which is fundamentally about creating a new future for ourselves? If that doesn’t have levels of relevance to the whole independence “elephant”, and issues of identity, I’m not sure what does.

    1. annie says:

      Wonderful, at least there is one! Maybe next August it will be awash with productions of ‘Leaving Planet Britain’ 🙂

    1. annie says:

      Thank you! I’m at a loss on which workshop to choose 🙂

  11. bellacaledonia says:

    Follow some of the great talent on show here:

  12. Countess fi Hong Kong says:

    Ever sat in a festival workshop and been the only scot ? Not that I noticed but i did wonder why i was continually pointed out by the facilitators and then, lo and behold some attendees joined in….my looks were not right, my statements were incorrect and although we were explicity told there would be no critique, guess who got some ?
    I can’t say i felt very comfortable with all that and the only conclusion i have been able to reach is that it was because i was scots.
    So perhaps that answers some of your questions, people are getting snuffed out at grassroots level as well as the boardrooms.

  13. claidig says:

    Reblogged this on laidigsbroadway and commented:
    Interesting points. Could the lack of local engagement be down to cash? The Fringe is one of the most expensive festivals to be a part of, and as soon as the venue is paid, they do not care if you make a loss.
    Of the shows I’ve been to so far, two of the comedians brought it up as a one liner (“just do it, you have so many reasons to go independent”) and I found it uncomfortable. Could just be me, but I don’t enjoy being told what I should choose to do. Perhaps another reason?

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