Interview: Alexander Moffat & Alan Riach on the political negligence of culture as the Referendum approaches

This article is from 2014

Interview: Alexander Moffat & Alan Riach on the political negligence of culture as the Referendum approaches

Authors discuss their new book Arts of Independence ahead of 2014 Edinburgh International Festival appearance

In their book, Arts of Independence, the painter Alexander Moffat and poet and academic Alan Riach argue that culture should be at the heart of the independence debate. In their Edinburgh International Book Festival event, part of the Scotland's Future strand, they discuss how they think the referendum debate could have been different.

In your book you argue that culture should be at the heart of the independence debate. Why?

Literature and the arts give you the most essential information about what being human means. Start with that and you have to ask how the world we're in sets value on them. In the UK now, value is set in money terms. That is not enough. Kulchur [the modernist poet Ezra Pound’s term] is here to help people to live. Its value is set in a context of three things: the work artists make, how the state makes that public, and how the public discourse keeps it current, makes the currency lively, engages it with informed critical thought, and conversation. The lack of these things means dullness and ignorance. Mass media is crucial here. Remember: broadcasting, like international relations and nuclear authority, is reserved to Westminster. I read recently that Scotland imports more stuff for our screens than anywhere in Europe. What is being put before our eyes so much that we take it for granted? Misinformation. This is politics because politics is people. So Kulchur is central, the most valuable thing.

Have you been disappointed with the debate so far? As novelist James Robertson has pointed out, there are only six or seven pages on culture in the Scottish Government's Independence White Paper. Do you think culture has been neglected by the official Yes campaign?

Those six or seven pages deal with broadcasting, mainly, as I recall. A far bigger question than they realise. Disappointment is not the word. I'm concerned, but increasingly unsurprised. What do all major political changes do first? Address the means of communication: the post office, the radio stations. How you let people know is the key to what people know. Which is why the National Collective is so good. Now, if the BBC were fully reporting all their activities there might be a balance of information beginning to be seen. Instead we have sound bites from, as I recall, Joanna Blythman, the food journalist, saying that anyone supporting the idea that Scottish literature should be taught in schools in Scotland are like the Khmer Rouge. Or James MacMilllan, great composer as he is, saying that artists and writers supporting independence are acting like Mussolini's henchmen. Or Alexander Stoddart, the sculptor, saying that we are all like little yapping dogs, incapable of not joining the argument. We would like the debate to begin, seriously. The trouble is no one who wants Scotland to stay ‘North Britain’ has an argument to counter independence. No one. So the debate has not even begun.

What would you like to hear from the Scottish Government: specific cultural policy or a broader invocation of culture and the power of imagination?

We'd like government and civil servant people and especially ministers for arts and education – in all parties – to show clearly and publicly that they value literature and the arts deeply, not for money, but for the vital information they give us about what it means to be human, how that changes in time and across nations, and what fun it can be. Never to mask that good work is hard work. To puncture celebrity Kulchur. And yes, to demonstrate how their policies deal with these things – which means, being able to speak in a language people understand, not the gobbledygook of jargon. To respect what they're funding and show that they're learning from it.

Do you think some politicians are reluctant to talk about culture for fear of being painted as either narrow cultural nationalists or out of touch with more 'serious' matters like economics?

Yes. Some can do this better than others, of course. But you need to take the risk. You need to say I want to learn more. But you have to have some knowledge, as well as respect, to be able to do the job at all. Otherwise you're nothing but a poser.

Despite the vitality of contemporary Scottish culture, do you still feel that we've yet to shake off the cultural cringe, particularly when it comes to talking about our culture and history?

Yes. There is vitality and spirit in many, many people, no denigration. But there is condescension and self-belittling, low self-esteem, ignorance and laziness among many people also. Sharp critical thinking is what we want, everywhere. Neither the ridiculous extreme of flag-waving jingo merchants, nor the dull and dismal mantra of “I don't want to know”. Come on, pilgrims! It's a big world. Take a big bite!

Away from the official campaign, there is a vibrant grassroots campaign involving many writers, artists and musicians. As the summer festivals get underway, do you think the issue of culture will come to the fore?

It's always there. How you frame the questions makes certain answers more possible. British nationalism is pervasive. Scotland speaks for itself. These things don't go away. They come from where we are.

Alexander Moffat & Alan Riach: The Referendum Debate Could Have Been Different, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 12 Aug, 11am, £10 (£8).

Alexander Moffat & Alan Riach

When the dust settles, fiscal concerns might be seen to have dominated the debate over independence, but for artist Alexander Moffat and poet Alan Riach, the cultural argument should take a leading role. Here, they discuss how the arts have helped shape Scotland’s identity and can fuel broader discussion about the future.