11/11/2013 11:36 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:56 GMT

Scottish Independence: Less of the Dismal Science


Russell Brand, a comic crossbreed of Keith Richards and Jack Sparrow, has recently made one of the most viewed political points of the year. That it was often wildly incoherent, complete with sweeping statements about paradigm shifts, doesn't seem to matter. We generally trust people like him more than we trust soothsaying politicians. Almost to highlight the point and in case you thought expenses-gate was over, a Tory MP was recently found to have accidentally claimed close to £6,000 for energy bills at his second home (complete with stables).

As Brand's peculiar style of politics highlights, we'll still sit up and listen when someone speaks about political issues. It just has to be the right sort of speaker - preferably a respected cultural figure, as opposed to a tired old politician. We naturally gravitate to the entertaining, the comic and the humane when it comes to political commentary.

This is something the 'Yes' campaign for Scottish independence seems to have recognised: for most people 'culture' registers where politics doesn't. They've been canny courters of the arts establishment in Scotland. They've neatly contrasted their view of 'culture for its own sake' with the coalition's cold insistence that culture should be measurable and provide tangible financial returns.

Indeed Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, is never one to shy from a literary quotation. He has a well known love of literature and the arts. He's even asked 'one of Scotland's great literary talents' to help write the Scottish Government's upcoming white paper on independence due out in November. (It's widely held that William McIlvanney has been tipped for the job.)

It's also clever politics. The Yes campaign has recognised, in that great tradition of enlightened Scottish thought, that you can't view political decisions in isolation of broader societal and cultural trends. Beyond the cold and narrow business of balancing budgets and ballot boxes lies a modern republic of letters: of Buzzfeed, Youtube clips and memes. Indeed few of us are willing or able to get through any analysis of the minutiae of political plotting without some injection of levity, cynicism or humanity.

The strategy is a smart one and moves the Yes campaign well away from criticism that the referendum is going to be all about budgets and spreadsheets. (As if, as the Economist has recently noted, it were 'being conducted by two rival firms of accountants.') In an age of acute distrust for politics, it opens the referendum up to a host of relevant cultural commentators.

The Scottish cultural world is consequently getting on board. A National Collective has started. Names including Irvine Welsh, Liz Lochhead, Brian Cox, Frankie Boyle and the late Iain Banks amongst others, have voiced their support for the 'Yes' campaign.

They are partly driven to the Yes camp due to a doom-laden Westminster narrative. Dubbed 'project fear' by the Scotsman's chief cultural commentator Joyce Macmillan, the unionist campaign focuses on grim economic projections. But as Macmillan notes 'the future really is unwritten...there are no "facts" about it; they know that how the future works out, after 2014, will not be for some politician to announce, but for all of us to determine and build. A campaign built on fear can never work.'

The cultural dominance of London must also be playing on many minds. Although spending on culture is a devolved issue, it's telling that while 12 percent of the UK's population live in London it provides 54 percent of Radio and Television jobs; 33 percent of Music and Visual performing arts jobs and 40 percent of publishing jobs. Similarly in 2010 businesses contributed £73m to London arts organisations - which is estimated to be 68 percent of the total business support for arts in the UK. Hardly surprising then that the Scottish arts establishment might flinch at the Economist's notion of London 'remaking' the UK in its own image.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that a peculiarly 'Scottish' culture will emerge from independence. No unified culture ever did or will exist. But it is to highlight that in a union which is so culturally skewed towards London, and without any positive vision emerging from Westminster, Scotland's cultural scene has been galvanised by the idea of saying yes to independence.