In the hipster's den: the playful politics of #indyref

At a gathering of artists for independence, a new generation of Scots activists gathers over a pint, and learns that, whatever the result of the referendum, they can shape their country.

Andrew Tickell
31 January 2014

Country: Scotland. Whit like is it? It's a peatbog, it's a daurk forest. It's a hipster's den. A raided vintage shop. It’s a cauldron o’ lye, a saltpan or a coal mine. A Teddy boy flailing against a foliage of iPhones, every leaf winking bright. Swank German beer. Earnest, spoken word poetry and safe, self-penned acoustic strumming. Rolled-up fags and asymmetric haircuts and ironic tweed. It’s a tenement or a merchant’s ha’. A cobbled street, saltires burling. It’s anti-folk post-rock. The broken back of an incomplete monument to Nelson. Loki’s Glaswegian hip-hop with an independent message. Grey men with grey plans for the nation, old familiars we can’t seem to displace. It’s a march or a hoolie; a meeting or a conversation. Sober or playful, serious and playful. It depends. It depends ...

It was quite something. Mono was already crammed when Liz Lochhead was field-promoted onto the billing. It didn’t take much coaxing to convince the Scottish Makar to totter up to mic. “Would you do the Corbie’s speech? From Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off”? In the flesh, she’s wee. The general hubbub didn’t subside – at least not initially – but within a few lines, a shoosh enveloped the whole room. “Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is. Here ’smines. National flower: the thistle. National pastime: nostalgia.”

Nothing about the setting recalled the la recherche du temps perdu. If your understanding of Scotland’s constitutional debate is based solely on BBC Newsnicht’s Gothic night-life of elderly gentlemen howling partisan talking points past each other, or the bloodless columns and articles of the mainstream press, you could be forgiven for seeing the referendum campaign as just another talking point in the ashen, exclusive work of political business as usual. But unreported, beneath the headlines about currency policy, technical EU membership rules and future pension provision, a new wealth of social connections are springing up around this referendum. Come a Yes vote or a No vote on the 18th of September 2014, these new ties, these friendships and comradeships, these self-confident, self-organised solidarities will stay with us.

National Collective represents just one outpost of Scotland’s new political sociability. Conceived as a locus for pro-independence “artists and creatives” – I cringed at first too – this is something of a misnomer. While National Collective includes a smattering of established playwrights, poets, architects and designers within their ranks – if the crowd at their Glasgow launch was anything to go by, it is really the youth outpost of Yes Scotland, incorporating folk vaguely interested in creativity and culture, but unified most by their generational ties and a shared constitutional vision. And none the worse for that. Surveying the convivial crowd, the coruscating lights, the music, the poetry, supping a pint, one young man observed, mordantly: “I thought this is what politics would be like when I joined the Greens.”

He had in mind the more usual unrefreshed political fare of stuffing envelopes, being shooed off by cantankerous pensioners, maintaining your grin as you canvass the racist voter who supports your candidate, of vaulting up closes and scaling tenements and towers, weary and out of puff. This was certainly different. As the group’s co-founder Ross Colquhoun observes, with National Collective, “politics seems fun again.” The strapline of movement’s recent launch at Edinburgh’s Wee Red Bar sums up the spirit. Echoing and adapting the aspirational dictum popularised by Alasdair Gray, “come party as if you lived in the early days of a better nation!”

But for the Scottish accents, we could have been anywhere from a college bar in New England to a self-conscious Melbourne coffee shop. Skinny jeans, stringy undergraduates, narrow-beamed boys in lumberjack red, girls in Scandinavian knits and embroidered oriental house coats; geometric specs in tortoise-shell and a higher than average beard-count: hipsterism rampant. There were even a few self-conscious ‘80s power-shouldered suits. And, here and there, a few stray pickled old socialists with pints of heavy, who have forgone the Trot’s faith in a red world, propounding the rather more modest slogan “Another Scotland is Possible”. National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow – Liz gave it laldy and the patchwork young crowd of post-modern fragments hushed up.

The enveloping stillness was no accident, and no politeness. The hush was generational and sincere. Most of the folk hubbubing about must have been born after Lochhead’s 1987 play was first written, but almost all of them seemed to know it well. Having been educated in one of those private bastions of the Glaswegian bourgeoisie during the late 1990s and early 2000s, which exposed us to almost no Scottish literature (or even Scottish history), I came to Liz Lochhead’s work late, on my own initiative, at university. For most of the crowd, however, it formed a cornerstone of their secondary education in the literature of their own country. Not unalloyed happy connotations, perhaps, but a seminal text for this generation, and here, on stage, its author barks out this memorable passage with gusto to a group of young Scots, enjoying the revels, united by nothing save their aspirations for Scotland’s constitutional future.

It isn’t a moment which conjures headlines, but it is an unusual experience in Scotland of what politics can and might mean. Our under-resourced national media, with its fleeting attention span, fixation on the fortunes of leading figures and party outfits, and demand for newsworthy and sudden reversals, is poorly placed to track gradual developments in our politics.

For many supporters of independence, the perceived biases of the Scottish media represent their biggest, growling bugbear about this campaign. For me, the reality is sadder, and more impoverishing. We live in a marvellous, rich, lively, complex, humane country. A land marked with its share of griefs and follies, to be sure – what place is otherwise? – but a Scotland with a multiform pied beauty, a couple-colour which is “counter, original, spare, strange.” You rarely encounter that busy, many-peopled Scotland in our waning newspaper typeface, or in our flyblown, cash-strapped and overcautious broadcasting studios.

But when you’ve an eye only for earthquakes and eruptions, the slow drift of the tectonic plates too often goes undetected. Like most economic prophets of our time, the vision of Scotland’s political seers too often have proved faulty. The annihilation of the Scottish Labour Party in 2011 by the SNP caught everyone by surprise. Jack McConnell’s narrower defeat in 2007 less so, perhaps, but its consequences were largely unforeseen.

I wonder if the same isn’t true about this referendum campaign. In and of itself, a cheery night getting lushed up with the politically like-minded changes nothing. For cynics, this may smack of preaching to the converted rather than reaching the undecided. Pints and pints, however pristine their craft micro-brewed credentials, don’t shift minds from No to Yes. But they do form connections, introducing a whole generation of would-be active citizens to one other, united around a shared goal. In a wee country like ours, such movements are not to be underestimated.

Despite the apparently limitless surety and security of the Powers that Be, in a circumscribed community, a knot of committed citizens with a plan and a will can change the world. And missionary morale is always important. Like the Radical Independence Conferences of this November and last, it is difficult to imagine this gathering’s shadow – the bright night when a band of committed young folk committed to continuing Union assemble and organise themselves, and ask: what can we do to build up a movement, to change our nation for the better?

It is also a striking rebuke to the self-serving story of the satiated baby-boomer, whose politics have plundered the national estate, and whose political imagination is haunted by visions of a disreputable, idle youth who deserve the economic disaffection and financial deprivation and uncertainty to which many of us have been consigned. For some of you, the bustling room I have just described will recall the torments and horrors of the tenth ring of hell Dante forgot, reserved for the poseurings and affectations of wanky youth. But it is the lot of every generation to denigrate the fashions of their successors, and I’d encourage you to take a second look.

Even for those chock full of green sap and optimism, it is quite something, to emerge into a world in which you can expect a worse standard of living than your parents all the way down the line, and worse, to be blamed for falling foul of the ruthless economic circumstances which you have done nothing to foster. It isn’t a cockle-warming tale to tell, that of this lost generation. Yet the folk I meet are not sinking into a joyless oblivion of emptying intoxication and distraction. Their political and creative impulses are stimulated, not depressed, by these circumstances. The vision may not be programmatic, or governmental – not yet – but only the sourest spirit could believe that the only legitimate driver behind a generation rediscovering the possibilities of active citizenship is a belt-and-braces conception of policy and statecraft. If the precondition is a little fun along the way, honi soit qui mal y pense.

Despite being bludgeoned flat by the recession, opportunities constricted, prospects curtailed, on their own initiative, this band of young folk decided to try to make a difference, and contribute to the great debate on the future of their country. Not as a calculated way-station on the course of a personally ambitious political trajectory, taking them from party hack to salaried researcher to unshiftable parliamentarian – but out of a desire to sound in the political sphere, as an end in itself. At bottom, it represents a refusal to be bored into submission.

It also rejects the atomised political Quietism commended by Russell Brand, and the exhaustion with democratic politics, violent imagery and flip cynicism which he represents. The Dickensian breadstick’s digressive New Statesman diatribe, calling for revolution through inaction, recalled Mark Corrigan of Peep Show’s marvellously caustic diagnosis of his flaccid flat-mate, Jeremy: “the absolute worst thing anyone could say about you is that you were a selfish moral blank, whose lazy cynicism and sneering ironic take on the world encapsulates everything wrong with a generation, but you my friend are not evil.”

Political problems have political solutions. The idea that things can never change, and are impervious to political agency, is one of our age’s worst superstitions. The young folk I’ve met in this campaign all repudiate it utterly. It’s a common sense which I wish was more common. It may be that their constitutional aspirations are blunted next autumn, and Scotland will remain a stateless nation for at least another generation. Whatever happens, and on whatever side of the argument they fall, this campaign will shape that generation for the better.

There’s a distinctively modern flavour to the night’s many meetings too. Some of this takes the form of the ghastly phenomenon gripping this generation of photos-of-people-taking-photos – a very contemporary archival fever, fostered by the ubiquity of the iPhone and an unhealthy obsessive-compulsive impulse that no experience is adequately authenticated without having been documented, and tweeted. On the other hand, a clear-eyed understanding of the power of the image is also at work here. It is important, not only that the event is happening, but that it is seen to be happening, and seen to be happening.

The internet is indispensable. While social media is not in want of glaikit seers and spiritualists of new age, new-management bollocks who cash in on overstating its influence, it would be wrong I think to see Twitter’s endless chirping as an empty hall of masks, without any meaningful connection to “the real world”, as some would have it. I’m of that on-the-cusp generation, riding the early wave which popularised mass-computerisation in the early 1990s.

The late Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory is the period piece which captures this disconnectedness best (though I hasten to add that, even as a macabre rural mite, I did not maintain my own array of Sacrifice Poles). Our modest primary school in rural mid-Argyll boasted only a steam-powered Macintosh and an even more ancient, pixelated piece of kit, whose solitary function seemed to be games of Frogger. So you notice the technological shifts and intrusions, without becoming an elderly and illiterate luddite, who struggles to fiddle anything beyond a fountain pen into functionality.

Many, if not most of the exchanges rippling across the room are not first encounters but the first revisiting in the flesh of familiar folk from online. With strangers, you’re often first struck by the gulf of social distance between you. Trying to bridge these unknown unknowns, you footer around clumsily for things in common. This often miscarries. Drinks are sipped awkwardly. You’re both grateful for dishonest excuses which disentangle you from the wreck of failed sociability. Neither of you let on.

But Twitter narrows that social distance. You have an instant shared agenda for conversation. Much of the bashfulness is eliminated. It’s like the good will attending a friend of a friend. Sometimes, the creature who presents themselves before you differs radically from the persona they have cultivated online. More often, you encounter a rough approximation, more richly detailed, perhaps surprising, but with a sense of pre-existing intimacy between you, somehow fostering dialogue, the friend to good conversation.

There’s also a pleasing openness about this sort of playful politics. The orthodox account is that this is a bitter campaign, its rough-hide scarred with innumerable acid-splashes and javelines: not territory for the tender-hearted or the tender-skinned to stray into. I disagree. Although the internet, as always, is too frequently characterised by its snark and recrimination, this referendum might represent a rare opportunity to transcend some of the irrational, calcified hatreds which govern too many of our political exchanges in this country.

There’s an iteration of our politics which sees Scots as inveterate tribalists. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, under the douce and watchful attentions of Henry Dundas, Scotland’s very sparse electorate were strongly for the Tories and Mr Pitt, A century later, this succeeded to Liberal domination, followed by a Unionist upswing, and most recently, by the long domination of the British Labour Party. Now the SNP and Labour scrap it out with eye-popping and irrational hostility. While the adults comport themselves like children, the kids are a model of civility. Greenies and Labour and SNP supporters natter away with radical young trades unionists and independence-minded Tories, trading views and rounds and laughter. Some of the talk is of politics, but by no means all of it. Gigs, music, films, study, work. The usual. It’s a picture of politics interwoven with life. There is no blood on the floor. No dull-eyed party commissar here, ensuring compliance with “the line to take” and executing backsliders. We could do with a little more of that spirit, and a little less unimaginative clannishness and the unreflexive politics of the straw man which it fosters.

Country: Scotland. Whit like is it? Win or lose in 2014, Yes or No, I’m optimistic that this referendum can leave is all strengthened, challenged certainly, but also a generational opportunity to cease tilling the earth with salt. The Corbie’s ambivalent Scotland of the 1980s recedes from memory and view. This independence generation is brasher, more assertive, but also unapologetic and unselfconscious in the best, rather traditionally un-Scottish sense. It’s a healthy, happy confidence. Cramped ye cannaes won’t be countenanced. How many generations are afforded the opportunity to answer the question: what kind of country, what kind of democracy do we choose to be? Too many folk are trying to make a banality of that conversation. It still makes my pulse beat faster.

This piece first appeared on The Drouth

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