One of the most exciting aspects of the Scottish referendum campaign has been the way in which it has reinvigorated political debate and civic life across the country. The flourishing of activism has been predominantly on the pro-independence, Yes, side of the argument and noticeably left wing. It has also fed into all manner of other campaigns, from the movement against the Bedroom Tax to the outpouring of rage against Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.
Nowhere has this blossoming of political thought been more pronounced than among Scotland’s artists. A group called the National Collective was created to bring together “artists for independence”. Its aim was, in its own words, to “argue the positive case for Scottish independence and imagine a better Scotland”.
The group has enjoyed the support and involvement of many of Scotland’s best known artists, including acclaimed authors such as playwright David Greig and novelist Janice Galloway. It organised "Yestival", a festival of the work of pro-independence artists which has toured throughout Scotland.
The intervention of artists has brought an exciting added dimension to the referendum campaign. At their best, artists make us see political issues in a new, thought provoking, emotive or humorous light.
Following David Bowie’s infamous statement at February’s Brit Awards, which ended with the words “Scotland stay with us”, comedian Fred MacAulay suggested Bowie had meant to say “‘Scotland, come and stay with us’. He was inviting us all to go and have a wee break in Manhattan.”
By the time the Edinburgh Festival Fringe opened in August, this joke had morphed into an entire programme of events. David Greig and friends set up a daily programme of talks, discussions and artistic performances entitled All Back To Bowie’s. It was described by its organisers as “a daily hour of gentle thought and hard daydreaming inspired by the Scottish independence referendum”.
While most of the artistic output relating to the referendum has been pro-independence, there have also been interesting artistic voices on the No side. Actor, theatre director and producer extraordinaire David MacLennan, who, sadly, died in June of this year after suffering from motor neuron disease, was a fascinating figure to emerge on the side of those opposed to independence. A founder member of both of Scotland’s most famous left wing theatre companies, 7:84 Scotland and Wildcat, he opposed independence on what he argued were internationalist grounds.
On 23 and 24 June, just ten days after MacLennan’s death, the National Theatre of Scotland broadcast The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show on the internet for 24 hours. One of the more interesting pieces in this experiment in live broadcast mini-theatre was a rhyming comic monologue by MacLennan asking rhetorically how Scotland’s national culture and identity could be enhanced by independence.
The final, and most touching, work of the show was a letter from Greig to his dead friend, MacLennan. Ruminating on the things that the two men had in common, both culturally and politically, it concluded that Greig would vote Yes hoping for the kind of Scotland that MacLennan himself had long wanted to see.
In March the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh staged a new play, Union, by Tim Barrow, which attempted to evoke events surrounding the Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland in 1707. The play successfully portrayed as a “parcel of rogues” the men who had bankrupted Scotland in the disastrous attempt to create a colony in Darien, Panama, just a few years before.
However, as it traced the events leading up to the undemocratic Scottish Parliament’s vote to dissolve itself, the drama foundered on its lack of structure and heavy-handed metaphors.
More successful, in both artistic and political terms, is Chris Dolan’s monodrama The Pitiless Storm. In the play we find excellent Scottish actor David Hayman playing veteran trade union leader Bob Cunningham as he prepares to make an anti-independence speech to an audience of Scottish Labour Party members.
A brilliant portrayal of a crisis of conscience, the piece sees Cunningham besieged by the principles of his younger, socialist self. A clever and affecting reflection on how the independence debate intersects with progressive politics, it is a fine example of the prodigious artistic output which has been inspired by the referendum campaign.