The last days before Brexit seem like a fitting time to revisit a song about Scottish independence. This Road Won’t Build Itself was released in early 2014, a few months before that year’s referendum. To my surprise, it turned out to be one of very few new songs on the subject, even making it on to a ‘songs of the campaign’ poll run by Bella Caledonia – although it was easily defeated by the more rousing Son I Voted Yes by Stanley Odd. Otherwise most people seemed to be listening to Cap in Hand by the Proclaimers.
In fact there was a conspicuous absence of pro-Yes art in general that year. Alan Bissett had an explicitly pro-Yes play at the Edinburgh Fringe, crowd-funded by Yes supporters, but he was the exception rather than the rule. Even at nationalcollective.com – the website of an artist-led pro-independence campaign – there wasn’t much actual art. Instead, the site was mostly just a forum for debate.
My explanation for this at the time was that the independence movement bore almost no resemblance to the thing the No campaign was determined to paint it as – an army of sentimental nationalists – and that Scotland’s pro-Yes artists, knowing how the Unionist-dominated media operated, didn’t want to rise to the bait. Instead they were determined to win the campaign on the strength of its arguments – political, moral, and economic – rather than with rousing, emotional choruses. The year before the referendum I had a long chat with Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue, who was passionate about the cause but determined to engage with it in the right way – which, for him, meant talking to people individually and directly rather than preaching from a stadium. The playwright David Greig, one of Scotland’s most prominent pro-Yes voices, took a similarly low-key approach with projects like his Yes No Plays, and the Edinburgh Fringe show and podcast All Back To Bowie’s, all of which were designed to bring people from both sides together for lively discussion.
I like to think that This Road Won’t Build Itself represented a kind of middle way. It’s a partisan song, but it doesn’t hammer the point home. If you didn’t know it was about Scottish independence, you might not guess from listening to it. Even I didn’t realise at first what it was about – it happened subconsciously. It’s a song about raising children as much as politics. It’s about hope, defiance, and idealism, and about what people who feel those things find themselves up against. It could just as easily be about Barack Obama’s election campaign. The two were comparable politically – ‘the audacity of hope’ would have made a very good Yes slogan.
Five years on, and with calls for another referendum becoming louder by the week, I find myself wondering whether this time we need songs – and art as activism in general – a bit more. I’ve never felt less convinced that a political campaign can be won on compelling political arguments. In Britain the Conservative Party, led by a Prime Minister who is a proven and consistent liar, just won a huge majority following an election campaign in which his party lied consistently. The Brexit campaign was also won largely by lying, assisted by shadowy people like Cambridge Analytica who have been manipulating voters across the world. The new year began with Donald Trump ordering a political assassination in the Middle East which appears to have been completely illegal, and demonstrably lying about it, and his presidency is likely to become stronger, not weaker, as a result, regardless of any howls of protest from the left. In fact the White House seems to have barely bothered to try and justify it. How do you win political arguments with facts and figures if nobody seems to care what’s true anymore?
It’s strange looking back at the Scottish independence referendum now. The accusation constantly thrown at Yes supporters was that we were naive fantasists who thought an independent Scotland would be some sort of utopia. The extent to which that directly contradicted my experience was one of the main reasons why I felt so disillusioned with both politics – and journalism – after the result. What I’d experienced was a broad coalition of people – academics, economists, thinktanks and, yes, artists – who seemed genuinely passionate about making Scotland a better, fairer, more equal place to live, and were willing to work hard to make it happen. Talking to Yes campaigners, and reading their ideas, I was hearing exciting proposals for fairer tax systems, stronger communities, more inclusive education and childcare, green energy, and the abolition of nuclear weapons: a realistic, workable, tantalising alternative to neoliberalism. Not all of this was reflected in SNP policy, but a lot of it was, and it felt as if there was a growing grassroots movement that would work hard to ensure any future Scottish government (SNP, Labour, or whoever) lived up to this ‘early days of a better nation’ idealism – a movement that, I believed, would be more powerful and persuasive after independence simply by virtue of being geographically closer to the centre of power.
Faced with this, the No campaign mostly just jeered that it couldn’t be done because Scotland couldn’t afford it (despite plenty of economic evidence that it could), or because – hollow laughter – the European Union wouldn’t let it. Or, when it was trying to flatter us, it offered sentimental, nationalistic, patronising waffle about how wonderful the UK is.
And now? If anyone is being a naïve fantasist, surely, it’s the kind of Brexit voter who thinks that after January we will somehow be magically free from oppressive European bureaucracy rather than, well, enduring all the grim things that are actually going to happen.
Art often emerges from a place of helplessness – the only forum for expression for people who feel politically powerless. That was true of punk, in particular. I never felt like that during the Scottish independence referendum. If anything I felt empowered, emboldened. A lot of people I knew felt like that, at least for a while. David Greig fondly described it as a ‘summer of love’. And if you feel as if people can hear you speak, perhaps there’s no need to sing. Perhaps there wasn’t more art about independence, back then, because there was no need for it. Perhaps Scottish artists didn’t feel compelled to kick against an oppressive, unfair or just stale political system via their art because there was an enticing opportunity to challenge it in a more straightforward, practical way.
Now, I feel like singing. In fact I’m currently producing a theatre project inspired by keening, which is premiering next week, our final week in the European Union. I can’t think of anything more apt to be doing right now.