In Now’s the Hour, a Scottish Youth Theatre production, a troupe of twenty-or-so young actors asked a simple question: How do we make the right decision in the independence referendum?
The play featured head scratching, loud exchanges, and satirical dismissals of arguments and counter-arguments. The stage itself suggested back-and-forth engagement: a saltire-shaped podium left spaces on either side in which Yes and No teams were variously encamped. And even if the subject’s weight was occasionally deflated by game-show themed exploration of currency options, Trident’s fate, and Scottish stereotypes, the play managed to express what few have managed: that the basis for political decision should be a sense of what’s right, which comes through actively pursuing truth, not casually perusing facts.
To get at what’s right, they started where most people do, with everyday social wrongs. Their humoured illustration of things wrong with Scotland – bad food, excess drink, sexism, gang-culture – cut through much that is abstract in the debate. The political aspirations were for respect, personal fulfilment, and less poverty.
They portrayed contradictions as signs of injustice. Why do we have some of the best food, but stuff our faces with chips? The best landscape, but some of the worst housing? A proud nationhood, but the sense we cannot express it without self-mocking? The contradiction between the wealth of the nation and the real life of people was simply described – a perspective neither campaign has managed to capture.
The actors voiced their questions about whether independence would change Scotland for the better. They gave gravity to these questions – and asked whether their future self would be glad with their decision. This approach mocked political decisions based on self interest, and mocked the herd-like way we ‘go to the polls’. In this play, the ballot box, glowing with light, was brought to the voter, placed in her hands as a burden to carry, a responsibility to uphold.
The play emphasised that the referendum requires action and deeds from the citizen: of inquiry, looking, thinking. And it requires what we seldom aspire to our nation: political thought, economic consideration, and individual reflection. As the strapline declared: “the hour is now – to seek, to ask, to find”.
The main inquiring part of the play amounted to looking at the vote as one based on understanding, not one based on the view of the herd or the polls; it is not a measure of public opinion, but must return to an older and wiser form of democracy, with a citizen engaged in asking what matters in life. A young voter, whom the rigmarole of parties courting the public has not yet affected, is uniquely placed to understand the importance of political choice.
The script was also clear, almost too insistent, that the history of Scotland is the right context for our decision. Social context, nationality, history and culture; the landscape and geography, mores and customs, prejudices and sectarianisms of the country: these, taken together, are the basis for patriotism, that sentiment that grounds both sides. Before the show the audience were asked, ‘what do you love about Scotland’? It was the first question, the first political sentiment, and the right context or state of mind for considering the future of the nation.
The awakening of this sentiment, and its connection to history, was expressed in their physical representation of moments in history: Bruce, industrial revolution, Enlightenment. The strongest lesson was a pacifist one, through a powerful depiction of Abu Gharab prison torturing, and Thatcher’s message that we need to be an assertive, domineering nation. These young people believe it is politically relevant to invoke the clearances, the Union of Parliaments as a parcel of rogues, Faslane, Thatcher, the War on Terror, to the recent financial crash and the implications for Scotland’s banks.
The play ended with the song Caledonia, leading the audience into a patriotic reverie; tempered by Let it Be, a gesture to unionism. So the play posited that a national historic exploration is a legitimate starting point and end-point of our decision – and that this indicates not undue influence from sentiment or emotion, but an intelligent stance in a civic decision. For citizens are citizens of a particular country; and the decision, whether this country should assume its own state, requires thought and reflection more than economic calculation.
The young tend to agree more than most, that a sense of right is the basis for political decision and action. Just as the young preacher or Christian writer is the forgotten figure of widespread Enlightenment, the young Scottish citizen is the best model for a new political revival, of folk who take care and time to seek, to ask, to find the right answers and to ask the right questions.