Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Independence Debate on the Fringe

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Independence Debate on the Fringe

Article excerpt

Scotland's on a knife-edge. Like all referendum-watchers at the Edinburgh Festival I grabbed a ticket forThe Pitiless Storm , a drama about independence, which attracts big crowds every lunchtime at the Assembly Rooms.

The play draws its inspiration from the passion and fury of Red Clydeside. David Hayman, an actor and lifelong leftie, plays a Glaswegian trade unionist who reflects on the troubles of Scottish socialism as the referendum approaches. Some of his rhetoric captures the best of the independence movement. 'We're not leaving the union, we're joining the world.' And he flavours his optimism with a dash of local irony. 'We don't know what the weather's going to be like in half an hour, let alone what kind of country we could be in ten years' time.' But he also indulges in self-pitying nostalgia. He sees independence as a rite of exoneration and atonement, a chance for Scotland to acquit itself of its involvement in the Blair government, and in the subsequent policies of the coalition. All the blunders and compromises of the past -- from the Iraq war to the bedroom tax -- will be purged in the fires of liberation.

The Edinburgh audience seemed to tolerate and perhaps even to endorse this misty-eyed revisionism. After the show, David Hayman invited questions from the floor, and the first contribution came from an Englishwoman who spoke in a jaunty Radio 4 accent. 'Britain will be sorely diminished if you leave,' she declared, as if opening a fête. 'Please don't go.' The audience, rather than hooting with derision, broke into warm and prolonged applause. Then a hoary old Scots Nat climbed to his feet. 'The yes campaign has made the better arguments...' he began. He was stopped in his tracks. 'But we'll lose the vote.' This interruption came not from the stalls but from the stage. It was David Hayman himself, admitting defeat in front of a thousand of his compatriots.

In the New Town, I visited the yes campaign's headquarters, which occupies a beautiful suite of rooms on North St Andrew Street. 'Register to help,' said the poster outside. 'Collect campaign materials.' In the corridor there were tables loaded with stickers and leaflets. Plastic buckets overflowed with 'Yes Scotland' badges. The place was deserted. A door creaked open and a nice old chap with a white moustache bustled into view. 'All alone?' I asked. He explained that the front-line troops were out on the streets whipping the populace into ecstasies of patriotic defiance. 'And who are you, by the way?' he asked. 'Just a journalist.' He folded his arms across his chest. 'Then I can't tell you anything.' This seemed a curious opportunity to pass up. I was quite ready to annotate and publicise whatever propaganda he cared to feed me: the last-minute surge; the rising support from the middle classes; the rock-solid pensioner vote; the thirst for change across the Highlands; the rebellious fervour of the young; the toxic negativity of the no campaign; the deadly impact of Alistair Darling's scrubbing-brush eyebrows; the cheerful rivalry between Glasgow's foundries as they compete for the honour of casting a celebratory bronze statue of Alex Salmond smirking over a prone and whimpering David Cameron. But instead he exuded suspicion and embarrassment. 'Feeling confident? …

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