The Flowering of Satire in the Caledonian Spring

The Flowering of Satire in the Caledonian Spring

Kevin Bridges joked at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last month that in the wake of the Referendum vote in Scotland it was as if the whole country was about to take its Higher Modern Studies exam. He was right. Scotland is alive just now with a detailed debate about whether we should break our union of 300 years with the rest of the UK and go it alone. You can't go to a dinner party, stand at a bus stop or nip in for a pint in the pub without engaging with the issues on the table. Everyone is talking about it. We have been busy up here - there has been a glorious flowering of grassroots politics that has been dubbed "The Caledonian Spring" in the global press and, like everyone in Scotland, life for those in the arts has been exciting over the last several months in the run up to 18th September.

While the vote across all groups is split between Yes and No, Scottish creatives have played an active part in the Yes campaign with the founding of the National Collective - a voluntary group from the creative industries which has campaigned online and off across the country, crowd-sourcing a Festival of Yes Talent (Yestival) which toured Scotland over the summer and culminated in a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last month. The fringe also hosted debates on the subject of the Referendum including All Back to Bowie's - a daily discussion hosted by Scottish playwright David Grieg who earlier in the year toured with the Bus Party, another writer/artist/musician initiative that set out to canvass political opinion Scotland-wide.

To an electorate that felt both cowed and hopeless in the face of traditional bunker politics at Westminster, the vivacity of the debate that has transpired in the two years since the Edinburgh Agreement was signed has been a shot in the arm. There is no doubt that we have surprised ourselves in finding that Scottish Town Hall politics is alive and kicking. With the polls showing a result too hard to call and in all senses 50-50 in these last days, the momentum is definitely with the Yes side as recent polling shows. The difference between the two campaigns has always been in style. While the No campaign has been run from the start as a more traditional, top-down model the Yes campaign has truly transcended party politics with campaigning groups like Women for Independence and Business For Scotland which now has over 2500 members of the business community who support splitting from the rest of the UK. There's even Pandas for Yes.

As a writer though, most exciting of all has been the flowering of satire that has been engendered during the course of the political debate. I'm a novelist and an historical novelist at that - I think slowly - and I find myself full of admiration for the talented people who can react creatively almost immediately to events as they transpire. Politics is the meat and drink of the modern-day satirist. As the late and very great Robin Williams said 'People say satire is dead. It's not dead; it's alive and living in the White House.'

Since the Referendum was announced Scotland has had its fair share of traditional satire - Alan Bissett's brilliantly-reviewed play The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant showed to packed audiences at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A Banksy mural was doctored to show a Scottish mouse frightening a little girl with a Union Jack schoolbag onto a chair. Poet Tracey Rosenberg wrote an alternative history for a future Scotland with David Cameron cast as a traitor (in the true Swiftian tradition) and novelist James Robertson composed a 365 word satire about BBC news. But in the main the Scottish satirical response has been very modern. The grassroots nature of the Yes camp and the fact that Scotland's press has mostly sided with the Establishment in supporting a No vote, has meant that much of the best satire has been aired online. If Pope, Swift or Hogarth were alive in Scotland today I'm convinced that's where they'd be plying their trade. If the No campaign has been dubbed 'Project Fear' Scottish Yes voters have laughed in the face of it.

Now sporting viewing numbers into six figures, Zara Gladman's take on a Lady Gaga number has spawned an online following for her satirical no voting persona Lady Alba that was one of the early pieces of musical satire that caught the Scottish imagination. After that an online crowd-funded campaign instigated Dateline Scotland - a spoof television show released on YouTube in the run up to voting day. This struck a chord in part because of Scotland's huge resentment of press bias, and in particular bias at the BBC, which I wrote about in this earlier article. Similarly, as England slowly wakes up to Scotland's political aspirations, and ordinary voters down south are mooting a range of emotions from outrage to exasperation, poet Luke Wright aped an upper-class English landlord in the Guardian - at first easy-going but ultimately shrouded in menace as he realizes that Scotland might actually vote to go it alone. Another musical response (this time from the National Collective) was a transvestite cover of Queen's I Want To Break Free.

Some of the best satire from the Yes campaign though has been directly based on the No campaign's attempts to discredit First Minister Alex Salmond. The twitter account @AngrySalmond is a hugely popular spoof stream that posts pictures of the First Minister ever resilient to criticism and marking every post #VoteYes #SexySocialism. It is a joy and includes my favourite post of all time with @AngrySalmond admitting he spray painted his name on a train because he was drunk on his way home the weekend before.

But Scottish satire's greatest moment of the campaign so far has to be in the meme that took wing when Better Together aired a Saatchi & Saatchi advertisement that immediately became known as Patronising Better Together Woman. Amongst all the misjudgments of which the No Campaign has been guilty this was certainly the worst, as an actress playing a female voter (the largest undecided group) was filmed for 3 minutes in her kitchen at breakfast-time talking about how, essentially, she just couldn't be bothered to think about how she intended to vote. It offended a plethora of women nationwide and the catchphrase Eat Your Cereal has quickly become shorthand for just the kind of disengaged voters we used to be, but here in Scotland, increasingly are no more. The day the campaign launched the response was vociferous with playwright David Grieg writing a late-night twitter play from the point of view of PatronisingBTWoman's longsuffering Yes-voting husband (Paul) and Scottish comedian Janey Godley posting a vine video - her real-life Glasgow version of a woman who doesn't agree with her husband's politics so hides his polling card. 'Eat Your Cereal' has been reported as being used as a term of disdain in playgrounds.

Even traditional media outlets have begun to join in with Sky News' mashup of Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling singing alternately about whether to make up or break up. It was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, The National Library of Scotland has started an archive to document the public debate including the satire of the Referendum, which already makes these responses feel historic.

How much this outpouring of satirical talent will change the result of the Referendum, is hard to say. 'The most brilliant satire of all time was 'A Modest Proposal' by Jonathan Swift. You'll notice how everything got straightened out in Ireland within days of that coming out' P J O'Rourke once wrote. If nothing else though the flowering of Scottish satire has cast light on the myriad of inconsistencies in the political debate and particularly of the No camp. To me this kind of response is innately good humoured and therefore bound to win out over more virulent fringe responses from a small number of extreme voters on both sides which have included cyber bullying, vandalizing campaign posters and in one or two cases the throwing of an egg or for that matter a punch. The unacceptability of such vandalisms has been roundly agreed by the vast majority on both sides. We prefer a good deal of satire in Scotland perhaps because on September 19th whichever way the vote lands, we know we'll still be in this beautiful country together and no matter what, the satire of these last months will be a legacy of the vivacious debate we've been having - a testament to an new era of Scottish political engagement and democracy of which every one of us can be proud.


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