What sort of Scotland?

Neal Ascherson

It was nothing but questions for the bus party. We heard them all across Scotland, we asked them and we tried to provoke them. The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the question-slogan of the Poles during their 123-year struggle to regain independence: ‘Poland yes – but what sort of Poland?’

‘What sort of Scotland?’ Will Storrar, our organiser, went to Homebase in Wick and bought an enormous roll of lining paper. At each stop the audience came and wrote down their hopes and questions. By the end, the roll (or scroll) reached for two hundred yards, running up one side of a church nave in Stirling and down the other. Somebody in Alexandria wrote: ‘I would like a nation where nobody feels the need to say: “I am a proud Scot.”’

The bus party was an idea I had borrowed from Günter Grass. In 1964, during a particularly dreary West German election in which nobody dared to speak their mind, he herded writers and artists into a bus and led them round the small towns of northern Germany. His intention was first to ask people what they wanted while giving them a taste of disrespectful oratory, and second to introduce Germany’s hopelessly urban intellectuals to their own country, their own compatriots.

We did a Grassian bus party in 1997, raising the wind for the referendum that would bring back a Scottish Parliament. Two differences from Germany: we made use of the Scottish fondness for music and song, and we didn’t feel the need to introduce those on the bus to their own country. Scotland’s intellectuals mostly have plebeian, non-metropolitan roots: the poet’s father is probably a retired Fife miner, the professor’s grandmother carried peats on her back, the singer’s great-aunts were ‘bondager’ girls on Border farms. Then, in 1997, we had campaigned for a Yes vote. Now, in 2014, although we were all Yes voters, we thought it better to listen, to join in the debates in this suddenly transformed Scotland, where a turbid flood of hope and doubt, of new-found collective confidence and old prejudices, was running towards September.

In Caithness, we heard the news that fire had destroyed Glasgow School of Art and the grove-like library which was Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece. Questions soon followed: first angry ones, then ones with wider implications. Why no sprinklers? But then: why was it that Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, a global style, rooted itself in small, often submerged nations struggling to re-imagine their own cultural traditions? In the Czech lands, Catalonia, Norway, Latvia, Finland, Belgium – and Scotland. Perhaps globalised culture, far from obliterating the local, could give it fresh life. Should the Mackintosh library be replaced, or restored stick by stick as if the fire had never happened? The Poles rebuilt their smashed monuments with minute, pedantic accuracy, even pretending that the years of absence never happened. The Royal Castle in Warsaw, destroyed by the Nazis and reconstructed thirty years later? The locals smile and say: ‘It was always there, in a sense.’ ‘Perhaps we should think about Scotland in the same way,’ the playwright David Greig said. ‘Perhaps Scotland has always been independent, but we were just unable to see it.’

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