13 September 2014
The Spectator (p.56)
An explosion of confetti will greet the announcement of Scottish independence. This isn’t another one of Alex Salmond’s fanciful promises, but an installation by a visual artist named Ellie Harrison. She wants Scotland to become a socialist republic. She has placed four confetti cannons in Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery. They will only be fired in the event of a Yes vote.
Most artists in Scotland favour independence. Harrison’s installation is typical of the pretentious agitprop they produce. This isn’t a uniquely Scottish problem. ‘Nationalist’ art is by definition functional: it promotes a cause. And though art with an agenda tends to be uninspiring, if it serves its purpose nationalist politicians are happy to fund it.
Scotland’s artists are keen to remind us that a vote for independence doesn’t reflect support for the SNP. Very few of them are party activists. Despite belonging to a group called National Collective, many of them aren’t comfortable with nationalism either. Aidan Moffat, a hairy man in his forties who sings cynical pop songs, sounds positively earnest when he dissociates independence from nationalism: ‘Independence isn’t about breaking away or creating borders, nor nationalist pride. It’s about building the better society that we hope for. It’s an opportunity to create the environment we’ve consistently voted for; it’s being responsible for our own future by democratically electing the people we trust.’
That’s all very well, but isn’t there a conflict of interest here? Scottish artists and performers are hungry consumers of government arts funding. A theatre director told me recently that it should be protected as a ‘basic human right’. And, happily for them, their enthusiasm for subsidy coincides with the statist ideology of the Scottish Nationalist government that signs the cheques.
Alex Salmond, like most nationalist leaders, has a wily understanding of the importance of the creative arts to his cause. Responsibility for culture in his cabinet lies with the foreign minister. That might seem odd, but it makes perfect sense. Salmond expects artists to project Scottish identity on to the international stage.
So far, his plan has worked. Since the SNP gained a majority in Holyrood, the relationship between Scotland’s artists and the nationalist elite has been uncomfortably close. It has been especially uncomfortable for the playwrights, painters and musicians who support the Union. Until recently they were under pressure to keep quiet. ‘But now we’re speaking out because the stakes are so high,’ says the composer James MacMillan. What will happen to the arts in Scotland if the nationalists win on Thursday? Harrison’s ludicrous cannons will explode. But then what? The word MacMillan uses is ‘desecration’: ‘We’ll lose the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra — in fact, we’ll lose the BBC. It’s unthinkable.’
But Salmond won’t see it that way. The governments of independent nations invariably expect their nationalist artists to continue in the role of cultural ambassadors. A revival of socialist realism seems unlikely (though you never know). A more plausible comparison is with the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Under Atatürk’s rule hundreds of community art centres were opened across the country. These were used to disperse the cultural ideals of the new regime.
In a healthy democracy artists hold the government to account. They satirise and ridicule their masters. The consensus that exists between Scotland’s left-wing artists and the nationalist government is not healthy, and is likely to become progressively less so.
Salmond talks about ‘diversity’, but if he emerges as father of the nation next week he will expect his diversity to come with a patriotic cringe. And this is where Scottish artists will pay the price for their blind faith in state funding. Following independence, the SNP regime will quickly empty its coffers. The arts budget will shrivel. The only beneficiaries will be artists who are prepared to ‘do their bit’ for the new Scotland, to prolong the celebration. Ellie Harrison should save some of that confetti. She’s on to a winner.