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Illustrations: Hey Monkey Riot/Edd Baldry
‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ These words, attributed to Alasdair Gray, are engraved in the wall of the new Scottish parliament building. Over the past 30 or 40 years the Scots have felt increasingly out of sync with a series of Westminster governments they usually didn’t vote for. But the grounds for change had been fertilised by a Scottish cultural revival that tried to restore their forgotten history.
Theatre companies such as 7:84 in John McGrath’s 1974 show The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, which toured village halls all over the country, lampooned equally the grouse and deer-slaughtering aristocracy and the greedy new oil and tourism entrepreneurs. The 2006 National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch showed how it feels to be a squaddie in Iraq, caught up in an imperial war (a common experience for young Scots).
This sensation of being governed by Westminster ‘aliens’ is giving rise to many groups and individual voices arguing for something better. The realisation that the independence referendum could unlock this latent potential is sinking in – not enough for the pollsters to pick up yet, but it’s there all the same. And the Scots are shearing away from the English obsession with its past and looking instead to northern Europe for inspiration for the creation of a better country – a Europe with which the Scots had a close relationship in the past.
New ideas have been stimulated by the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project, which proposes a distinctively Scottish version of Nordic society – a society that is inclusive, egalitarian and forward-looking. A paper on the project, The Common Weal: a model for social and economic development in Scotland, explains: ‘A Common Weal Scotland would place a strong emphasis on issues such as a diverse and high quality media, a strong arts and cultural identity, a transformed approach to education, new attitudes to transport and urban planning, careful management of resources and the natural environment . . . Finance [should be] seen as a means of sustaining industry and providing financial security for individuals, not as a speculative means of profit maximisation.’
Common Weal is an open forum, which belongs to anyone who wants a better Scotland: ‘It is for each person or organisation to say what that model means to them, to contribute their ideas to that model and to explain how they believe that transformation can be achieved.’
Another recent initiative, Radical Independence, was launched at a hugely successful conference in Glasgow in September 2012. Its strapline declares: ‘We believe Scotland should be a people’s democracy, a society of equality, a great welfare state, a good neighbour, and pioneer a just economy. We believe this better Scotland can only begin with independence.’ Its recent conference, at the end of October 2013, brought together 18 local branches, ranging from Inverness and Aberdeen in the north to Galloway in the south. ‘Branches’ is perhaps the wrong word as that implies some central organisation, which RIC does not have – it is constituted by its local groups, which share ideals in common. It is inclusive, not exclusive.
Many other groups are active. The National Collective was formed by a group of young Scottish writers, artists and designers as a means of illustrating the potential they see in their country. While their main aim is to ‘imagine a better Scotland’ through their creative work, they have not been afraid to take on the anti-independence Better Together campaign. In April 2013 they were threatened with legal action by Ian Taylor, Better Together’s largest donor, over their revelations concerning his company’s dealings in Iraq and Serbia. Standing their ground, they managed to focus the national media’s attention on the important issue of funding for the national debate.
The loose gathering of radical voices under the Yes banner includes well-known media figures such as Lesley Riddoch and land reformer Andy Whiteman. Riddoch’s recent book Blossom chronicles local empowerment stories such as the successful buy-out of the Isle of Eigg by its community trust. Whiteman is author of the seminal The Poor Had No Lawyers, which recounts in detail how big landowners in Scotland got their hands on millions of acres that were once held in common.
Another key individual is Mike Small, originator of the Fife Diet, who edits the mouthpiece for many of the independence groups, Bella Caledonia. Bella (named after an Alasdair Gray character) attempts to counteract the habitual laziness and pro-Union bias in the media in Scotland. An online magazine, it launched in 2007 to explore ideas of independence, self-determination and autonomy. It has a large and diverse range of contributors, one of whom, journalist Phil Mac Giolla Bháin, writing from Ireland, envies the Scots with their chance for a ‘velvet divorce’. He says that ‘the UK will always be about England and how the other nations cope with their absorption.’
Let’s leave the final word to the National Collective: ‘The politician asks his people to empower him, the artist asks his people to be empowered.’