Saturday, 31 December 2011

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

Fireworks over the castle and crowds on Calton Hill. This Hogmanay in Edinburgh may look like any other, but when the new year dawns and the fog of whisky fumes has cleared, something will be different.

Like a glacier advancing, political opinion has slowly shifted in this city over the past year. Behind genteel Georgian façades I’ve seen dinner parties descend into shouting matches; listened in bars as people, once Labour supporters, talked about “taking control of our own lives”. Interviewees have turned the tables on me and asked: “You’re the journalist. You must know. Are we going to be independent?”

It’s the biggest question Scotland has faced for 300 years, let alone in my lifetime. Just months after the SNP’s historic election victory, pale-faced “unionists” (in Scotland the SNP has even seized control of vocabulary) stare at each over their coffee cups, enumerating the forces lined up in the great debate. The nationalists have a leader, a message, they appeal to youngsters and have the best and richest campaign machine in the country. On the other side, the Brits have ... well, no leader and apparently no campaign at all.

Every week has brought some new sign of the SNP’s onward march: the almost daily spectacle of Alex Salmond riding roughshod over his political rivals in Scotland; his constant point-scoring over Westminster. Whether it’s public-sector strikes or European walkouts, the First Minister deftly blames the coalition Government for all Scotland’s ills.

At SNP HQ there is, these days, an almost palpable confidence in the air. Without once uttering the word “zeitgeist”, Peter Murrell, the chief executive, argues that the party is almost completely in tune with “the nation”. The latter is a term he uses often.

The Scottish nationalism of people like Murrell, who has the mild demeanour of a clergyman, is far removed from the hairy, firebrand politics of its ancient heroes. These days it feeds off focus groups and consensus politics, fires up young people and embraces incomers from Pakistan and Poland, binding allcomers to the cause. “Outside of the political classes, people tend to say ‘Why not?’ and that gives us confidence,” says Murrell, who used to work for the Church of Scotland. “We’ve already come a long way. We are heading towards the final bit of the journey.”

This view appears to have a firm foundation. This month, the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, produced by the National Centre for Social Research, confirmed that most Scots favour a revised constitutional settlement known as “devo max”. In other words, a system of government that would give Holyrood control over all tax and spend decisions, yielding only defence and foreign policy to Westminster. These findings, as Murrell points out, demonstrate that the population already wants more powers for Scotland than any political party — apart from his own — has so far been prepared to offer.

“People simply don’t want the status quo,” he says. “The nation is far ahead of Labour, two thirds of the way towards the independence position. Our responsibility is to define the independence bit of it, and that is what we are starting to do.” Then, with a tight little smile: “We can have everything.”

Everything? Unionists will mutter, “There they go again”. But in fact, what “everything” means to the SNP remains a moot point. Around the Scottish Parliament, the party’s MSPs and researchers are working on a “referendum prospectus”, a holy book that will define a vision for the new Scotland. It has already emerged that the SNP wants to retain at least two great British institutions, the monarchy and the BBC. Up for discussion are the economic settlement and the division of oil revenues, the roles of the Civil Service and the military. One senior Nationalist has already raised a question, apparently crucial for his party: “Is there a need for a separate DVLA or even Ordnance Survey?”

According to Nationalist logic, separation from the rest of Britain will be made palatable to doubters by “the social union”, the mesh of family ties that link those 800,000 Scots-born people in England with the folks back home, not to mention the connections shared by 400,000 English people who have drifted north of Hadrian’s Wall. Why these myriad family ties should work in favour of nationalism is not immediately obvious but, according to Angus Robertson, MP, the social union will apply a kind of healing balm to those inflamed by the notion of an independent Scotland.

“Independence will be underpinned by that sense of shared historical experience — the fact that we are not strangers or foreigners in the nations of these islands,” he tells me when I speak to him at Westminster. In other words, there will be no need for border controls or passports, at least from a Scottish perspective. (English politicians may have other ideas should economic migrants head to Scotland, and then decide to take the high road south.) 

With so many weighty matters on their minds, it’s little wonder that the SNP is keen to postpone the referendum. That, and the fact that they suddenly have the resources to fight a long campaign. When the poet Edwin Morgan died this year, he left the party £1 million. A couple of months later, Chris and Colin Weir won £161 million in the Euromillions lottery, and gifted a million, with (so rumour has it) much more to come. SNP activists talk excitedly about having £20 million to spend up until June 24, 2014, when, it’s a fair bet, the referendum will be called. That date, after all, is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

The party is rich in another way. Murrell and his team are the best campaigners in Scotland by a very long street. The digital strategy at the heart of May’s victory has drawn much admiring attention from beyond Holyrood. Daniel Teweles has worked in the White House with Barack Obama as a digital consultant, and advises on politics and social media all over the world. He watched the Scottish election with growing excitement.

“Let’s be honest, Scottish politics were not really on the international map — but they firmly placed it there,” Teweles tells me. Starting from second place in the opinion polls, in the 60 days before the May election the SNP transformed its prospects, in part at least, by cleverly integrating its doorstep campaign with, in geek-speak, a “single digital platform”.

In other words, activists were able to use a new party website linked to Twitter and Facebook feeds to swap information continually between their online campaign and party workers on the streets. In practice, this meant that SNP workers could trace every user who typed “SNP” into social media boxes. From watching online conversations they identified non-members who were championing the party. They could track down any user who was interested enough to open an e-mail from the party. That one digital platform helped the canvas, raised funds and dragged out the vote. It was quite simply brilliant, says Teweles. “They didn’t separate online and offline at all. It’s an arbitrary difference anyway. In the Western world we live our lives between online and offline, with our phones and laptops. The SNP understood that.”

So is the union doomed? The party’s opponents take their crumbs of comfort from a notion that the Nationalist surge in the May poll was apparently little to do with rising support for independence. This a thought confirmed by John Curtice, professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, who has worked on the Scottish Social Attitudes survey since 1999. 

“As SNP support grew over the last four weeks of the election, it became less and less of an independence vote,” Curtice tells me. “You could see that very clearly if you tracked YouGov’s polls. The Labour Party had no vision and ran a useless campaign against one of the most charismatic politicians in the UK, and a government which was seen as effective in representing Scotland’s interests. This just wasn’t a contest.”

Where Murrell and his team see support for “devo max” leading inexorably to independence, others discern a line in the sand once those tax powers have been granted to Holyrood. A crucial question arises when people are asked: would Scotland be better or worse off with independence? 

“In most areas of life, people think independence won’t make a difference,” says Curtice. “The one area where that isn’t so true is when you come to the economy. Then opinion splits — a third think things will better under independence, a third no difference, the rest think it will be worse. This is the most vital part of the argument that the SNP has still to win. Once you start trying to predict for and against independence, the economy is very important.”

Factor in the sovereign debt crisis and the traumas in the Eurozone, and other questions arise. “In the short run, the SNP want to keep sterling — but who’s going to let them keep sterling?” muses Curtice. “The UK Treasury? Without conditions? Does the UK Treasury want an independent Scotland to be using the pound and potentially engaging in debt? Then, by the time Scotland joins the euro, there will have been consolidation. So does independence offer more fiscal freedom than ‘devo max’? It’s not so obvious any more.”

Back at SNP HQ, Murrell, unflappable, believes that there is time enough to make the economic case. And if the opposition arrives at the referendum, as they did at the election, with no leader, no message and no strategy, who knows what can happen? On that Curtice agrees. “The unionists ought to win,” he says. “But so far they have displayed a remarkable ability to screw things up.”

Saturday, 17 December 2011

"I went to art school to meet exciting people and luckily I did"

Everywhere Martin Boyce goes in Glasgow School of Art someone calls his name, extends a hand or offers a disbelieving smile. It starts in the foyer, where Seona Reid, the school’s director, has asked to meet him briefly to offer her congratulations. Next, a man in the lift, grinning from ear to ear, shouts his praise. Then a slack-jawed student almost drops her sheaf of prints as she sees the artist walking along the corridor.

This, apparently, is the price of fame in Glasgow’s friendly world of contemporary art. On Monday night, after ten years or more on the judges’ long-list, Boyce, 44, was finally awarded the Turner Prize, after Richard Wright and Susan Philipsz, the third successive graduate of this school to claim the prize.

 In his dignified acceptance speech on Monday, Boyce had no doubt about the importance of this great institution in his own development. After thanking the Baltic (the gallery is the first non-Tate institution to host the show and it has been a barnstorming success, with 120,000 visitors to date) and his mum and dad, he ended by saying: “I want to acknowledge the importance of teachers.” It’s why we’re meeting here. His worries are now for the next generation, who may never get the same opportunities he experienced.

 “Would I go to art school today? I don’t know. It was easier to go to then. Just the sheer economics of it today ... Funding, cuts and all these kinds of things. The fees ... ” He lets that thought linger.

In Scotland, home-grown students don’t have to pay fees, but English, Welsh and Northern Irish incomers can expect to pay £27,000 if they arrive in Glasgow to study art. It’s even worse in other schools, particularly English colleges, where the number of arts applications is down by 16 per cent, according to the National Union of Students. For architecture you might need the Turner Prize winnings of £25,000 and half as much again to complete the five-year degree these days. There are grumblings among teaching staff on both side of the Border that art schools are becoming elitist playgrounds and the arts will suffer if only a certain type of person can afford them.

Glasgow’s magnificent Mackintosh Building bears the marks of straitened times. Boyce, a friendly self-effacing guide, has agreed to lead a tour of the school’s famous building. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it’s a mad, ornate, draughty and utterly marvellous place. The most famous rooms — the library, the lecture hall, the Mackintosh Room itself — are places to linger, and think. But even the eerie stairwells and dark wood corridors are full of inspiration: a name and date — “Izzi 78” — carved into the wall is a jagged echo of the details in some of Boyce’s own work.

 When he was a schoolboy, this place inspired him, and even now Boyce can hardly contain himself. “There was something about the art school, before I came here, and this incredible building,” he says. “I wanted to come here; then to be accepted as part of it; then to come to the building every day.”

His success at Monday’s Turner prize-giving, along with the triumphs of his immediate predecessors, suggests that the Turner’s shock factor, epitomised by Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided and Tracey Emin’s My Bed (which didn’t even win) has receded. How would he describe his work? “Ooof,” he exclaims, as if he had never been asked. “You really could say it is like landscape painting. It’s not far off that.”

At the Baltic in Gateshead, Boyce converted three large white gallery pillars into concrete trees, scattered leaves from wax-coated crepe paper across the floor, and introduced a wonky, out-of-place library table (scarred with what appears to be student graffiti). He sealed in the strangeness of the setting with a canopy of white-metal leaf-like panels.

“I was always interested in arrangements of things,” he says. “You collect things, you arrange them in your bedroom or on your wall. In a way it’s an extension of that process. I guess I’m as interested in an idea of a place as much as the things themselves. There’s something, a relationship with memory, but the installation also triggers snapshots of things, fragments that come together.”

 By now we are wandering along a ground-floor corridor, with Boyce leading the way past the college war memorial and a phalanx of Classical statues. Outside a studio, he fills in the chronology. Born and raised in Hamilton, it was a gifted schoolteacher who switched him on to art and piqued an interest in post-punk design.

Cosseted by a student grant (remember those?) he matriculated in 1986, arriving serendipitously, just after a key moment in the school’s history. A couple of years earlier a department that once had been “murals and stained glass” was transformed by tutors Sam Ainsley and David Harding into something called environmental art. At that point, says Boyce, there was a rebellion by “determined, mouthy, dynamic” students — Douglas Gordon, Roderick Buchanan, Iain Kettles, Nathan Coley, Ross Sinclair, Christine Borland — and Harding decided he should sit down and redraft the course curriculum with his lippy undergraduates.

It was a teaching revolution. By the time Boyce arrived, the department had acquired a magic all of its own, and was based in a former girls’ school, near the Mackintosh Building. This too was an alluring place: Boyce remembers a couple of intertwined staircases; you could walk all the way up and hear someone coming down, but never meet the person.

“David Harding said context had to be 50 per cent of the work,” says Boyce. “The classes and the teaching extended into the bars and people’s flats, with folk throwing parties and socialising all the time. David and Sam were great at getting people together. David would start a song and people would sing. It was natural for David, and his personality just rubbed off on the students.”

This was an irresistible mix to a 19-year-old, who studied environmental art from the beginning of his second year. “It was the kind of people as much as anything,” he agrees. “I remember seeing the work coming out of the department. There was a bit of a pop sensibility, it seemed interesting, something was going on. But the people you saw in the Vic Bar [the college bar] and around the school — they were so open and friendly. I remember when I was accepted on to the course, Roddy Buchanan stopped me in the street and congratulated me and welcomed me into the department. That kind of feel is important.”

During studio time, there was no sense of hierarchy. “Even in my second year I’d be doing a project and stay late, and I’d go down to the old gym hall, where Roddy and Douglas and the others were in ‘the Big Studio’, and I’d hang out, talking late into the night. There was no sense of, ‘beat it’. There was a desire to engage. I loved it. It was the whole reason I went to art school, to meet those kinds of people. You have an idea that you will meet exciting people, and luckily I did.”

The broad definition of environmental art — it really just meant “art in a place” — opened a window on every kind of discipline. Painting and sculpture, collage and film could all be studied and purloined from inside the Mackintosh Building. Scavenging had a literal meaning too, in the streets around the college.

“People used to get into the old Metropole theatre and drag out all sorts of amazing things,” recalls Boyce. “There was the whole thing of using found objects. There was — not quite a gang mentality — but a group identity within environmental art. There was a sense of doing things together.”

After graduation, that sense of togetherness remained. Many of the school’s young artists lived in Garnethill, just a street away from the Mackintosh building. “We were always in and out of each other’s flats, especially the ones who made good soup,” recalls Boyce. “We used to joke that it was a little like that scene in the Beatles movie where they all walk into separate front doors of terrace houses only to reappear in the same big open house.”

This shared experience translated into Transmission, an artist-run gallery in Glasgow, and quickly into international collaborations and worldwide recognition. Douglas Gordon was the first Glasgow-trained Turner prizewinner, in 1996. Boyce, too, rapidly emerged with shows across Europe culminating in Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours at Glasgow’s Tramway in 2002. “You should have won the Turner for that,” another well-wisher tells him, as he passes on a gloomy staircase.

Yet amazingly, all this recognition began with something like abject failure. Boyce was unsuccessful in his first application to the school, and spent a year signed up to life-drawing classes in the Mackintosh Building, creating a new portfolio for his second attempt. “You got one lesson a week,” he recalls. “But full-time students from the college would come in too, to get an extra lesson. I was talking to this guy and he thought I was a proper student. That made me think. I started coming in twice a week and sitting in the students’ lesson when I wasn’t meant to. So I got extra lessons. It seemed to work.”

By now, we have reached the basement studio, where Boyce spent that first year at college. The famous Turner prizewinner pushes open a door to reveal a strange and colourful interior of fabrics and felt, occupied by a middle-aged woman, a would-be student who is putting the final touches to the portfolio that she hopes will gain her entry to the college next year. This large lady looks up from her desk and regards Boyce with irritation. “Who are you? Do you work in the college?” It is perhaps as well that Boyce is indifferent to fame. “No, I’m an artist,” he says, with a wan smile. “I occasionally come in . . . every so often they ask me to come in.”

Portrait by James Glossop

Thursday, 1 December 2011

"We're all in this together"

From first light in Edinburgh city centre, it was obvious that something was up.  Every government office, each law court, museum, clinic and hospital,   had its own little crowd,  the gaggle  of people that signified the biggest public sector strike  for a generation was under way.

The last time  people came together en masse like this was   — as many Scots would have it — in the dark days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

Yesterday’s action, like those of the 1980s, might simply be caricatured as a battle between resolute government and self-serving union leaders. But now, as then (in Scotland at least) it would be a foolish politician who chose to ignore the sense of dignified outrage among these protesters.

By the end of the afternoon, the strikers’ case against government attacks on public sector pensions had been articulated by many an earnest speaker. Hours before in the bright morning sunshine, Alex McKay, a picket outside the High Court,  put it as well as anyone.

“Public sector workers are just a ridiculously easy target for the government,” said Mr  McKay, who on any other day would wear a little white wig, and go about his business as a clerk of the court. “They don’t look at Trust Funds, or stopping tax frauds, they just take the easy option.

“The Government like to play off the private sector and the public sector, but the truth is we’re all in the same boat. The people who run supermarkets might say ‘Well, we pay a huge amount of tax’, but it is the government who has to fund tax credits, to help out all the low paid staff who work for them.  We should come together and say, ‘Enough is enough’.”

 This was a protest, that, like the beer adverts of old, hit  parts of the establishment that other protests don’t  hit. It wasn’t just the courts that suffered. A mass walkout by 34 members of UCATT closed the stonemasons and carpentry workshop at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh; Pete Smith, the only carpenter at Edinburgh Castle withdrew his labour for the day.

Nurses  were quick to try to scotch the notion that they had put lives at risk or had even so much as upset a passing patient. 

At the Edinburgh Eye Pavilion, Paula Johnston, a  Unison shop steward, said that members had decided not to picket outside the Sick Kids Hospital, because it was “inappropriate to picket a paediatric hospital or alarm the kids at all”.    

Outside the Blood Transfusion Centre, another health service picket, Tom Hiddleston, made a different kind of point. “We’re allowing the collection of apheresis platelets,” he said, “the kind of red blood cells that which might be used in children’s operations of cancer treatments.”

Gradually, to the toots of support from passing motorists, all these people assembled themselves into a march of 10,000, delighted apparently to find themselves among so many of like mind. Among them were many who might be have once considered themselves  Conservative, or Liberal Democrat,  parties which have become endangered species in Scotland.

But it is not only the Coalition Government who the strikers have in their sights. The SNP administration at Holyrood, whose ministers spent much the day criss-crossing  picket lines are also under scrutiny.

“We welcome the verbal support of many of the issues  from the Scottish Government but this is about actions,” said Jude Ritchie, Edinburgh organiser for the PCS trade union.

“If they just pass on the cuts that will make no difference to our members.  They are better than the Tories, but they can’t just pass the buck.”

Pic by James Glossop