Scottish Nationalists Are Hijacking Music to Push an Independence Agenda

(Jason Cairnduff Livepic/Reuters)
Culture should never be a mere tool for politics, and artists should not be mouthpieces for the government.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

I was reminded of this oft-quoted Robert Burns verse while recently reading an article by Reiner Luyken, who has spent most of his life writing for Die Zeit, though he has lived in the Scottish Highlands for the past 40 years. “Culture that goes beyond being a tool of politics, ideology and fleeting ‘ideals’ is the heart of any civilised community, be it on a local, regional, national or, indeed, international level,” Luyken notes. But things seem to be a bit different in Scotland, he adds, observing that the ruling administration in Edinburgh is keen for culture to be the tool of politics — their politics — and is working hard to achieve widespread, general compliance.

I write this in the week that crime writer and Scottish National Party (SNP) supporter Val McDermid has castigated BBC journalist and fellow Scot Laura Kuenssberg for disrespecting First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Basically, Kuenssberg presented a most innocuous comment about Nicola Sturgeon’s predictability, which was then spun by McDermid and the Pavlovian Twitter mob who piled on her comment as “insulting a politician for doing their job.” Scottish “patriots” are unforgiving and mob-handed.

McDermid joins a long list of “creatives” (the Scottish Government’s preferred word) who have queued up over the years to offer their support for the political establishment. Days before the recent SNP conference, in a move coordinated with political handlers, 50 prominent figures in Scottish arts and academia published a “declaration of independence” supporting the government in calls for Scots to “decide their own destiny,” setting out “guiding principles” for a new state, a new constitution, the expulsion of nuclear weapons, etc.

So a lot of pro-government political stuff there, although the Scotsman’s Arts correspondent writing about the “declaration of independence” noted that he “searched in vain for any mention of arts or culture.” He continued: “This would be an odd enough omission if the sector was not still waiting on a new national cultural strategy, more than two years after plans were unveiled.” In fact, at the last Holyrood election, the SNP made this manifesto commitment:


We will commence work on a National Culture Strategy which will be based on the principles of access, equality and excellence. Engagement with partners has started in the last month and the Strategy will be developed collaboratively over the coming year. It will build on the existing strengths of the cultural and creative sector to:

1) Improve meaningful access to culture and the arts for all of Scotland’s people so that more people enjoy more forms of culture more regularly than at present

2) Enhance the vital role of arts and culture in empowering communities, organisations and individuals helping to tackle discrimination and promote equality

3) Help artists and cultural organisations across the country to maintain and further improve the quality of their work

4) Encourage sustainable and inclusive growth.

This is the bland and universal language of political management-speak: meaningful access, equality, excellence, engagement, partners, empowering, communities, sustainable, inclusive, and so on. One finds it all through the NGO sector — made up now of ideologically driven political activists — a sector meticulously colonized by the ruling political class. However, one looks in vain here for a definition of culture or art.

Scotland’s culture minister, Fiona Hyslop, has decreed that Scottish artists “have to have” “a common understanding of what the country wants,” generously conceding that artists “don’t have to be close to government,” although clearly she knows there is a significant majority of that tribe who are desperate to be just that.

It’s odd — people in the arts, who often pride themselves on being free thinkers and anti-establishment, have, in Scotland become something else. Gone is the thirst to speak truth to power. In its place is a meek and mild compliance, a pathetic desire to please those in control. Many seem to have forgotten that nationalist movements throughout history have sought control over culture and heritage.

Lost is the notion that artists should never have the slightest obligation to have a “common understanding of what a country wants.” Art should not bend the knee to governments or ruling castes. Since when did the artistic desire to shock the establishment become the desire to bend over for them? What would the culture minister make of Alexander Pope’s aspiration “To wake the soul by tender strokes of art / To raise the genius, and to mend the heart”? Nothing about kowtowing to “the country” there. What about those writers who want to write for readers, rather than “the country”? What about composers who don’t care “what the country wants”? Art and obligation are very dangerous bedfellows. Perhaps the ruling class and its cultural cheerleaders need to be reminded that “the country” voted in 2014 against their plans for secession and separation from the United Kingdom?

So what about this “National Cultural Strategy,” then? We are told its launch is imminent, but who, other than the most obedient servants, is anticipating this with excitement? Can government actually do anything for culture? Wouldn’t the best thing be for it to get out of our faces? Artists and artistic managements all have their own strategies anyway, but if the local culture is slowly being impoverished, it gets difficult for us to strategize anything. In music, for instance, there is manifest reason for alarm at our schools and colleges.

Classical music is an art form that brings the generations together — there’s a profound connection between what aging musicians do and what the youngest in our society might achieve in their own music-making as they begin their life’s work.

This is brought home to me in the work I do in my music festival, The Cumnock Tryst. A lot of our energy goes into encouraging young musicians at primary or secondary school to perform, invent, improvise, and compose their own music. The festival gives them a platform for this. Last year we inaugurated a project at Doon Academy, in the town of Dalmellington, in which I and my colleagues supervised and taught, on a one-to-one basis and in group workshops, a group of nine teenagers, eight of them young women, to compose short movements for string quartet. The Edinburgh Quartet subsequently performed these works as part of the festival and recorded them for the students.

The students’ learning curve in this project was steep, with regard to musical notation, the understanding of instruments, and the basic notions of organizing abstract musical ideas into functional structures. It was all connected to the Scottish Qualification Authority curriculum so that Doon Academy would be able to submit the compositions as part of the students’ work in their National Exams. Reports are that the nine Dalmellington teenagers were all in the highest bracket in this section of their work. We repeated the project this year at Auchinleck Academy, in East Ayrshire, and we will continue year on year in areas that are socially and economically deprived. It’s our cultural strategy.

The backdrop to this, though, is an escalating worry about cuts to music education in Scottish schools; the disappearance of free music tuition; the raising of fees, which edges out poorer children; and a dumbing down of the music curriculum. This last point is of increasing concern as it becomes clearer that Scottish state-school students are not being raised to standards required for conservatory-level study. If that means, for example, that Scottish state-school children will find it more and more difficult to compete with others to gain access to Scotland’s own conservatory (the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), then we have a national scandal looming.

The education expert Lindsay Paterson has suggested that the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland is not working, and that it might have to be changed. There is now clear and growing disquiet at its failures, highlighted in a clear four-year decline in students’ performance in the recent National Test results. The curriculum has recently been the center of widespread anxiety — and this reflects a sense that the once-admired Scottish education system is now mediocre and perhaps in free-fall decline. Paterson writes:

The inadequacy of Scottish educational data is itself a scandal. The present SNP government withdrew Scotland from other international studies that would have told us more about what is being learnt. The pre-2007 coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats abolished the Scottish School Leavers’ Survey, an internationally renowned source that had been running biennially since the 1960s. Now the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy is also being abolished. Scottish education is a data desert.

Paterson pinpoints what the problem might be: “There is no recognition in the curriculum of a canon of necessary ideas or practices — no acknowledgement of any kind of theoretical framework that might give coherence to each curricular subject.”

In music, and I’m sure in the other arts, we have certainly noticed this. And it’s not just that the kids might not actually ever hear any Beethoven, or know who Stravinsky was, but that the standard of technical ability in performance has steadily dropped lower and lower. When I was preparing to apply to university and conservatoire in the late 1970s, I was expected to operate at Grade 8 Level in my playing. Now it’s Grade 4. Right across the board in all subjects, it is increasingly clear from international comparisons that neglecting knowledge and skills is educationally disastrous. Yet this is what our cozy, complacent consensus is bringing about in Scotland.

Any successful, visionary cultural strategy in Scotland will require a linkup with our education system and the recognition that the knowledge and skills necessary for music (as well as math and history, which are being nurtured in our competitor nations from China and Japan, to Germany and England) have to be at the core of our educational culture. It might take a generation or longer to achieve this, but the knock-on effects in our artistic and cultural life will be palpable as a result.

So where will the Scottish government’s imminent “Cultural Strategy” lead us? What’s the thinking behind it? As far as music is concerned, some clues emerged in a pro-government book that appeared last year: Understanding Scotland Musically. For its editors, the 2014 referendum on independence from the U.K. was the “seminal moment in Scottish culture.” They claim that “musical nationalism is today on the rise, and as much as some commentators wish to divorce music from nationalism, music continues to be crucial in the construction of national identity and belonging precisely because of its affective power.”

They go on:

The use of social media cannot be underestimated in the new production of Scottish nationalism: there are numerous striking examples of Scottish cultural and civic nationalists building support for independence in and through traditional music throughout the two-year referendum campaign including: new songs composed in support of cultural and political independence; Scottish Government collocation of traditional fiddling and piping with nationalism in their political videos and in tourism marketing, and; gigs and albums explicitly in support of Scottish independence. Traditional music emerged in a new online public discourse in a striking example of cultural nationalists supporting a determinedly civic nationalist campaign by the Scottish National Party.

As I wrote last year at Standpoint magazine:

Other musical styles are given short shrift because they can’t or won’t fulfil this particular agenda. Scottish pop music is dismissed: “There is arguably a Scottish school of popular music and musicians, but like the art music tradition, their musical habitus is located in an Anglo-American world.”

And “classical” music? The editors are quite clear — they write of the “mythologisation of dead, male, white composers in the art tradition” and that “it is safe to say that the ‘pale and male’ lineages of composers of classical music still hold great signification in the public square.”

For this, they blame “those Tory politicians who have repeatedly sought to reinstate and aggrandise ‘dead, white Germans’ within the English GCSE and A-Level music curricula.”

So there we have it — it’s the Tories’ fault. And the Anglo-Americans. And maybe even the Germans too this time. Might there be some kind of attempted power grab going on in this volume? Not just for the right to define real Scottishness and Caledonian musical purity, but for the government funding and policy alignment that might go with it?

Some of the book reads like an extended love letter to the SNP Government’s Culture Minister, and a complicated, in-depth funding application to Creative Scotland. [Editor] McKerrell bemoans the fact that “fewer than a quarter of Scottish state schools provide bagpipe lessons” and that there is a bias therein in favour of classical musical instruments.

We should be much more concerned about the dismantling of music education in its entirety in Scottish state schools, and the growing inability of our young state-schooled music students to attain the educational advancement necessary for a life, career, and vocation in music. A true cultural strategy would tackle these.

Reiner Luyken, the journalist from Die Zeit ensconced in the Scottish Highlands, watching Scotland with an outsider’s eye, is right to chide us that culture should never be the tool of politics and that Culture Minister Hyslop’s “common understanding” of the culture “bites itself in the tail.” And he is spot-on in concluding that “what she means, of course, is her understanding, and that of her party and her party’s favoured artists.”

James MacMillan is a Scottish composer and conductor. His Stabat Mater receives its American premiere  November 7 at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival at Alice Tully Hall at 7:30 p.m.

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