When looking through a brochure for the Belfast Book Festival, I was mildly surprised to see an event about Scottish independence listed: the “Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence” panel, a follow-up to the literary collection of the same name. Not having read the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was going to be like, or even what viewpoints would be represented in the discussion.
The event was held at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast and chaired by Peter Geoghegan, an Irish journalist living in Glasgow, with input from Aaron Kelly, a professor from Northern Ireland who works at the University of Edinburgh, and two contributors to the book: Denise Mina, an anti-independence crime and comic writer; and Aonghas MacNeacail, a pro-independence poet and songwriter, as well as native Gael. After a brief introduction, the discussion started with the topic of how involved writers, and artists in general, have been in the forefront of the independence movement since the last Scottish referendum.
Denise Mina spoke about the major problem of politicians and papers reducing the arguments and the voters to “binaries”, be it “for” and “against”, or “Scottish” and “English”. This was highlighted in a section of the book that tackled the difference between colonisers and settlers, which actually gained quite a lot of press through misreadings of it. This reduction of arguments to binaries, she argued, means that everything is oversimplified and the arguments for both sides are destroyed; it prevents debate and creates repetitive accusative and defensive arguments, such as the back-and-forth over currency and EU membership, among other things. In terms of how the writers felt, they thought that these topics were important for the politicians to discuss, but Denise thought that it was up to the writers and artists in general to ask the “bigger questions”, and to encourage debate over the other consequences of independence – how it will affect each particular group, rather than the statistics and averages.
There was an emphasis on identity and nationhood, and the idea of an “intercultural identity” that Northern Ireland and Scotland share, as they have both experienced huge cultural influence from England, but are connected by their mutual desire to be considered distinct from England. The independence movement was described as being “about identity and future hopes, about social justice and the notion of nationhood”, but Denise Mina posed that the energy devoted to the independence movement could be transferred into “sparking a new enlightenment in Scotland” and making actual changes, rather than voting for something that may not cause as much change as people hope.
Aaron Kelly made an interesting point about how, historically, Scotland has been regarded as “miscarried” and abnormal; it was different to how a nation should be, as far as the English were concerned. Scotland, however, took that abnormality as a strength, and something of which it was proud. Where other countries felt they had to agree on things, Scotland was able to express its differences and still work as a nation. This became part of Scotland’s cultural identity, and one of the points of difference between it and England – where England wants to have homogeneity, Scotland is happy to have its quirks and differences. Kelly summed up the general opinion of the panel by saying “debate is a healthy thing so long as it’s nuanced and subtle, and not reductive”, while Mina suggested a format whereby people were allowed to state their arguments and not respond to others, so they had to give fully thought-out points rather than arguing about someone else’s facts and figures.
Also mentioned was the idea of artists feeling an obligation to write about certain topics or influence their readers in a certain way, seen very strongly in Northern Ireland since the start of the Troubles, when an overwhelming amount of literature originating in Northern Ireland became about various aspects of the Troubles. Denise Mina mentioned that she felt certain obligations with her writing, but having a “deviant social identity” meant that she tended to ignore those obligations. Aonghas said that he felt that he had to keep his poetry and his personal feeling separate and, although his own feelings would go into his poetry, to try to put them there was unhealthy for his writing, so there was no forcing of ideas or thoughts into his works.
In all, I was impressed by the respect that Denise and Aonghas gave each other, as they clearly had very differing opinions, but were able to discuss them rather than devolving into a pointless argument like we’re seeing more and more in politics. It was made clear that writers can’t play the role of politicians, as they can’t promise anything regarding independence, but they have a great ability to open up discussion to other questions, such as what will happen after independence and how will it affect Scotland’s culture and national identity. They all agreed that the notion of an independent Scotland was one of a modern, diverse country as part of the EU and UN, as opposed to a romanticised version of the “good old days” of clans and kings, and although the argument on both sides was slightly idealistic at times, it was a very thought-provoking debate which will hopefully encourage more people who aren’t political to come forwards and discuss the topic.