A New Cultural Energy
All this week we’re publishing articles by English people who support a Yes vote in September. Matthew Houlihan kicks off our English for Yes series by exploring how independence could unlock a new cultural energy.
I’ll be completely honest, I live in London. My dad was from Edinburgh. But my time in London really informs my argument on Independence. The neo-liberal Westminster consensus seems impervious to change. Which is why the trend for de-centralisation, as in the explicitly progressive campaign for Scottish Independence, to take power back from these unaccountable elites, is so popular, and so necessary.
I have lived and worked here in London for many years. Ive been an actor professionally working in the south of England for 8 years now. Ive noticed the decline in the arts here, a profitable industry by all accounts, simply because, with austerity, choices are made in Westminster which are ideological and are not dependent on economics.
Art is not a commodity. Among other things, it is food for the soul and an expression of the common conscience. However, since Thatcher, it’s been viewed as an indulgence, a very Victorian concept. Cameron and the Tories enable this concept when they cut public funding. The London-centric UK arts have therefore become infiltrated with an ideology of profit and private patronage. Oddly, despite the economic arguments for a strong arts industry which punches above its weight in terms of producing more than is invested, the British Film Council was cut. BBC3, the most interesting and creative aspect of BBC arts, was cut. Cuts continue.
Also, crucially, the rents of London theatres and even fringe theatres have risen and risen amid the huge property bubble which has blighted the lives of many Londoners and set the scene for a future UK economic crash.
Small companies cannot now even afford to put on shows where before they merely settled for not paying artists under the myth of ‘profit share’, when profits essentially went to the theatre owners and the landlords. An excellent company I have recently been involved in has closed for this very reason; who can afford to pay £2000 a week for a fringe play?
The UK arts trend is one of fewer voices able to get a platform and the private monopolisation of ownership of these artistic platforms, leading inevitably to a US style wealthy patron system of artistic expression, with very little popular debate in theatre dependent on the taste of the highest income bracket. This alongside an official BBC version of reality, with atrociously low quality sitcoms and programs which increasingly only employ big names and which avoid any accurate debate about what most people feel and think reflected in their programming, instead patronisingly appealing to the lowest common denominator for ratings.
The West End of London exhibits an awful list of tired old musicals and film remakes packaged for tourists and with the profit as its bottom line. Producers have largely become money men utterly divorced from artistic merit. Billionaire producer Cameron Mackintosh, who owns vast swathes of London’s theatres, said in 2010 he never goes to the theatre.
Famous actors have also recently been condemning the trend of the squeezing out of working class kids from artistic training simply because they are priced out of education. A regression from the freedom people were enabled in the 1960’s.
Fees and the ability to do free performance after free performance in the hope of being actually employed (an experience I’m very familiar with and which is a trend of neo-liberal labour markets called ‘precariousness’) can only ensure those born into money can stay the course while those without funds cannot sustain themselves.
So what is to be done? It makes me want to scream. And it makes me, like many of my artist friends, start to look elsewhere for a healthy arts scene, where interesting and challenging ideas are explored and where employment is more secure.
Independent Scotland is such a place. Short of a major political shift in Westminster which looks unlikely, I suspect a potential exodus of artists from London in the event of an Independence vote. Already the SNP arts minister has described the possible flourishing of a new Scottish film and TV industry, not to mention the already established Edinburgh theatre infrastructure. The Holyrood government has suggested a big budget for this new venture and it excites me. It has the potential to be the most exciting English language arts scene of the early 21st century. That should excite us. All us artists. For it allows us a window for expression free of monopoly such as our generations have not seen.
It can provide a beacon to the world. And a flame which demonstrates very articulately how cultural and political alternatives to the neo-liberal model of government CAN work.
Scotland has a rich heritage of artistic and comic creativity given a small budget. Imagine what we can do with the proper infrastructure and energy!
I am certain that independence will not only benefit Scotland’s community but will help England re-define its politics too. And Wales. And Catalonia. Westminster currently represents central power impervious to change. We need to take that power back, into our communities, where it rightly belongs. THAT is democracy.
I urge you to be brave, be a builder of a society, rather than simply react to and complain about the old one. Be a pioneer as the people of old who had to risk everything for a new society and whom we have been taught to remember in awe. Be a pioneer of a new Scotland.
I am optimistic. Those who are uncertain really do need to stand aside. Their choice to procrastinate serves the status quo and regressive decline. Allow those with vision to put it into practice. This is the way progress has and will be made.