While it may have been natural for the Edinburgh International Book Festival to commence its ‘Re-Thinking The Union’ debates with one which posed the question ‘Would Culture Lose Its Shine In An Independent Scotland?’, it rapidly became clear that the question, however questionable itself, was not going to become the subject under discussion.
Sitting listening to Alan Bissett, Professor Linda Colley and the long-suffering David Lammy (MP for Tottenham), with Libby Brooks doing her best to chair amidst some lively exchanges, this reviewer couldn’t help but feel the premise and perhaps choice of participants had been something of an error.
Alan Bissett opened the debate with a stout defence of Scottish contemporary culture as opposed to what he suggested were English perceptions of and reluctance to acknowledge the present healthy state of Scottish culture. Although extensive in its inclusion of a number of art forms, Bissett seemed less secure in talking about other forms than his own, referring to ‘The Black Watch’ rather than the play which lacks the definite article, thereby unintentionally suggesting the Royal Regiment of Scotland was now devoting itself entirely to show business.
Pedantry aside, it was unquestionably a suitably pugnacious defence of the national interest, leaving Professor Colley to flounder somewhat, as if she were an undergraduate who had failed to adequately prepare for the seminar. Her generalisations were sometimes embarrassing in their triteness, and her suggestion that matters were complex felt like an announcement of the re-invention of the wheel.
David Lammy did his best not to pour further oil on already troubled waters, but by now any hope of a reasoned debate on the nature and substance of culture in or furth of Scotland had departed, and the political agenda was not only out of the bag but dancing on the tables of the Guardian Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square Garden.
This was a considerable pity, for apart from some name-dropping for the sake of appearances, and, it must be recorded, a splendid contribution from Ruth Wishart as audience member, on the role of broadcasting in Scotland, culture figured little in either the speaker’s addresses or audience questions and responses.
There was no mention of Scottish visual art, or of the fact that it flourishes in the Highlands partly as a result of English settlers who promote it. No mention either of the numbers of English people actively working in the arts in Scotland, without whose input Scottish theatre, to instance one art form, could well be the poorer. No mention of the introduction of La Sistema, the Venezuelan initiative that has introduced classical music making to the children of Raploch, Stirling’s notoriously deprived housing scheme. One could go on. Oh, I have.
Yes, we done loads and continue to produce much fine work in many fields, but we do so with the example and sometimes the help of others. All of the above appeared to have passed both speakers and audience by in a headlong rush to condemn Westminster and all its works. An opportunity to develop a meaningful discussion on one of the most important aspects of life in Scotland thrown away in preference for ‘business as usual’ on the part of the politically anoraked.
Disappointing as this event proved to be, it offered some possible lines of inquiry which may be developed in a subsequent summary of all three debates.