24/03/2014 07:25 GMT | Updated 23/05/2014 06:59 BST

A Story About Power Told in the Future Tense


It's hard to label Martin Creed's art as 'conceptual'. The current retrospective of his work at the Southbank has no concept; no overriding idea, no wider narrative. It's hard to figure out if his neatly stacked pile of boxes is saying something profound about space and order, for example, or if it is, after all, just a pile of boxes. The same goes for his crumpled up piece of paper. (This was apparently binned by a member of security at an Edinburgh exhibition. Clearly rubbish.)

Creed's got a great sense of humour and unlike many contemporary artists doesn't take himself too seriously. He's probably laughing along with us at his general lack of coherence. But he is (unwittingly or not) hinting at a wider trend. There is a much broader questioning today of grand stories and narratives. We no longer trust the hallowed institutions, sacred ideological cows and unassailable ideals that once populated them. This is especially true of the British story.

'Britain' is increasingly evaporating as a concept. It's no longer a set of coherent ideals inhabited by tangible institutions and characters. Instead it's become more of a marketing device filled with vapid catch-all phrases. It's vaguely referred to in reference to 'fair play' and 'multiculturalism'. Of course there is a reaction to this drift. Figures like Nick Clegg have wildly grasped in vain for some meaning. But these views of Albion tend towards pastiche - of happy queuing crowds waving Union Jacks as the Royals saunter by; of the shipping forecast and pomp and circumstance; of weather and the cups of tea.

Coherent narratives matter. Lawrence Freedman, in his recent tome on strategy, notes how fundamental they are to carrying popular opinion. When done well they can bind us together, carrying everyone in a nation along on a collective endeavor. They can also be used to lure us into misguided assumptions. A recent example of this is austerity Britain and the narrative of the good housewife Britannia cutting back in times of hardship. Needless to say the economics are much more nuanced, but that particular image won out.

Yet beyond more belt tightening, Britain is largely failing to articulate any coherent future script. It's telling that the one party currently following a strong script is itself outside of any UK story.

The SNP script is not simply about Scotland and certainly not about the sort of idealised past that Nick Clegg conjures up. Instead it is a forward looking tale - taking its cue from nations like Finland (GDP per head nearly 10% higher than the UK) and Norway (85% higher than the UK). It offers a critique of a Britain blindly led by market forces and sleep walking into a Kingdom completely dominated by the South East. Salmond echoed the comments of an LSE economist and Vince Cable, when he called London the 'dark star' of the UK economy, sucking the vitality out of the rest of the country.

Crucially the 'Yes' campaign's narrative is an optimistic one. Charles Kennedy has recently pointed to the dangers of the unionist parties adopting an unremittingly negative outlook. Dire unionist prophecies have consistently been trumped with a more optimistic and hopeful story from Edinburgh.

It's probably no surprise that Salmond was inspired to nationalism through the tales of Scottish history told to him by his grandfather. Thankfully this hasn't led him down a route of tartan and whisky. Instead he's set out an engaging forward facing script. He's an adept follower of Freedman's notion of a good strategy as 'a story about power told in the future tense from the perspective of a leading character'. Such an approach is already showing dividends in contrast to negative and muddled unionist rhetoric.