An extract from Iain Macwhirter's latest book Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution.
It seemed that a class divide had begun to emerge in what had loosely been called the continuing ‘Yes Alliance’, the various non-SNP groups that had campaigned for independence in the referendum. The reference to an ‘art school clique’ related to criticism that National Collective, the acclaimed arts-based #IndyRef initiative, tended to exclude working class people.
Co-founded by the graphic designer Ross Colquhoun in 2012, the National Collective had mobilised some 4,000 writers, artists, poets, and designers, and organised a series of festivals, including a Yestival, of music, poetry and comedy which lent much-needed colour and energy to the Yes campaign. However, some in the wider independence movement felt that its art was rather conservative, inward-looking, and middle class. As McAlpine himself put it: ‘[working class supporters of Hope over Fear] don’t really do wish trees and coffee mornings and performance poetry and deliberative conferences.’
The rapper Loki, real name Darren McGarvey, inspired a vivid debate on the Nationalist left when he posted a series of video blogs in March 2015 saying that he and working class artists felt excluded from National Collective. In one memorable rant worthy of Malcolm Tucker, he said that National Collective existed only to ‘suck Ross Colquhoun’s big rugby cock’. He later apologised for that remark. For their part, National Collective insisted that there had been no attempt to exclude anybody from the organisation. In fact, they say that they discussed a funding project with him to engage young working class people. The whole point of National Collective was that anyone could participate and there was no attempt to curate any of the material it published or staged.
More seriously, however, Loki also criticised National Collective for being too close to government after it emerged in March 2015 that Ross Colquhoun had joined the SNP payroll as an ‘engagement strategist’. ‘His appointment by Scotland’s ruling party,’ said Loki, ‘is sure to raise questions regarding National Collective’s authenticity as the artistic voice of the Yes movement.’ Loki was joined in the assault on National Collective’s integrity by the Yes-supporting journalist Andrew Eaton Lewis, the former Arts Editor of the Scotsman. While he paid tribute to its member’s creative work and energy, he criticised the Collective for lacking any kind of internal accountability, membership rights, or constitution. It had, he said, a ‘democratic deficit’.
The truth is National Collective was never a democracy. It was an association of like-minded individuals who came together in an ad hoc way to try to inject some colour into the Yes Scotland campaign, which was, by common agreement, too preoccupied with dry statistics and abstract arguments about currency. Initially the Collective was arguably more like a writing group than a political or arts organisation. But the initiative simply struck the right note at the right time, gathered hundreds of volunteers, and unleashed a huge amount of anarchic creative energy. True, it wasn’t Turner Prize stuff, but they weren’t interested in selling to the arts market or being placed in galleries.
National Collective’s relationship to the SNP was always close since a number of founder members were SNP supporters, but it kept the other organisations, including Yes Scotland, very much at arm's length. It is unfair on the artists, musicians, comedians, writers, fashion designers, and others who gave their time for free to the Yestivals and other events to complain that it was a nationalist front. It wasn’t. Political parties simply aren’t capable of having that much fun for a start. There was perhaps an element of naiveté in believing that the Collective could continue as a free-form, come-as-you-are ‘happening’ when it started raising significant sums of money and had become a national movement. But it never pretended to be a political party. As Christopher Silver, one of National Collective’s prominent members put it on Twitter: ‘The lesson I took from #IndyRef is that it’s better to start your own revolution than wait around for one with an AGM.’
The debate raging in Bella Caledonia soon attracted the attention of political journalists from the mainstream press. Many had never rated National Collective and had been waiting for an opportunity to have a go at it: ‘I don’t care whether National Collective are democrats,’ wrote the Spectator columnist Alex Massie in the Scotsman, ‘I’d just prefer them to be artists.’ He quoted sections of bad poetry that had been published on the website. He might equally have quoted the celebrated Scottish poet Liz Lochhead or the Booker prize-winning novelist James Kelman who contributed to the hardback almanac Inspired by Independence. Or one of Scotland’s leading playwrights, David Greig, who said that National Collective had brought inspiration to the independence debate.
But for my money the success of National Collective had nothing to do with the arts-world names that it attracted. Any campaign can do that. It wasn’t trying to appeal to the arts establishment or bid for Arts Council grants. What was endearing and new about National Collective was the involvement of unimportant people who were invited to contribute their poetry, thoughts, art, photography, humour, knitting, or whatever, without being subjected to withering criticism. National Collective set itself the task of ‘imagining a better Scotland’, and even the much-derided wish trees did exactly that.
Unfortunately the scorn, accusations of class bias, and political selling out seemed to undermine the confidence of those still involved in the Collective in late 2014/15. It was always on shifting sands based on voluntary effort and changing personnel. Despite its communication skills it seemed to lack the will to mount an effective defence of its work in political or artistic terms, even though its success was never in doubt. It is one of those occasions when some old media PR might have helped. Perhaps even a press conference to address some of the political accusations formally. But it didn’t happen, and within a month, National Collective effectively shut up shop.
The criticism that it was a clique of middle class 'luvvies' was probably the killing blow. Middle-class radicals in Scotland tend to be insecure of their class background. There is no obvious reason for this sensitivity since revolutionaries from Karl Marx to Nelson Mandela have invariably emerged from the middle classes. It’s what you say that matters, not where you come from. But in Scotland there is a degree of class hostility that can be very difficult to manage if you are on the sharp end of it. The dark side of Scotland’s literary strand of proletarian romanticism is a cultural animosity toward people who didn’t grow up on housing estates. Or who don’t sound as if they do. The final irony of the National Collective class row is that Ross Colquhoun was brought up in a single parent household in Edinburgh’s Drylaw estate.
On May 1st 2015, a statement on National Collective laid the movement to rest. ‘To be part of it was exciting, energising, inspiring and beautiful. National Collective belongs to a time and a place and that moment has passed.’ If the implication there was that National Collective had always been time-limited, that wasn’t entirely true. It had never been the Collective’s intention to liquidate itself after the referendum and initially it had ambitious plans to become a permanent non-aligned arts-based organisation. Aware that it had been too urban and lowland-centred, the organisers had planned to develop its network of local groups across Scotland and publish a series of arts-based journals in each of these areas. It sent out questionnaires to its 4,000 odd members and was seeking crowdfunding for this purpose. But, as the controversy surrounding the organisation mounted, these ideas faded. The energy had drained out of the Collective and an organisation that had been built on nothing had to eventually recognise that it had no visible means of support. It is worth however considering its last will and testament:
"National Collective offered a form of participation in politics that was thoroughly imaginative, but also accessible to all. National Collective tapped into the consciousness of a generation for whom the restrictions of ideological and party loyalties can often seem stifling and archaic. National Collective’s central aim, to ‘imagine a better Scotland’, remains just as relevant now that the referendum campaign is over. Its early success was just one example of a wider upsurge in grassroots activity in support of Scottish independence.
However the group was also tapping another seam, namely, the rise of what has been described as the ‘precariat’. The young, often highly educated post-industrial workforce that has become an ever more significant feature of neoliberal economies everywhere. National Collective is what a political campaign looks like when it is instigated and sustained by such people."
That was a remarkable statement in many ways, both in its maturity and its political wisdom. It was fully aware of its limitations but also confident about its strengths. Of course, it was unreasonable to expect young people with careers to build to give endlessly of their time for nothing. It probably couldn’t have continued without proper funding and some kind of permanent secretariat. And there is much good work continuing by people involved in the venture. Nevertheless, when National Collective was extinguished, a light went out in the independence movement. I wasn’t involved in National Collective in any way and hope someone who was closer than I was to National Collective writes a proper assessment of its achievements. If Scotland is in the middle of a democratic revolution, then National Collective deserves a lot more than a footnote.
The demise of National Collective seemed to epitomise the failure of the continuing Yes movement or alliance to find a collective way forward in the post-referendum era. In place of the infectious enthusiasm and optimism of the referendum, there was now an element of division, rancour, and disillusion.
Perhaps this is just what always happens to radical movements. Yet it was a strange moment for cultural defeatism. The day National Collective folded the opinion polls were indicating that the SNP was on course to win every seat in Scotland. That, you might think, was an eloquent rebuff to Alex Massie who had said that National Collective’s radicalism was about ‘as subversive as a flat white in Finnieston’. Finnieston is in Glasgow which was the prime focus of the nationalist electoral revolution on May 7th 2015. History may judge that the ‘hipster unco guid’ as he called them, played a not insignificant role in turning the young people of that city to the SNP.
Artwork by Jim Arcola and Vonny Moyes.