Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

April 27, 2010

Is there enough spirit?

The Tories big election idea – Big Society – has been derided in some quarters as being unrealistic and out of touch.  The cynics argue that the demands of modern life mean we no longer have time for ‘community’.  Good piece by Kenneth Roy in Scottish Review on the gradual decline of the Scottish Community Drama Association and whether this reflects a deeper malaise

Kenneth Roy, Scottish Review. 22/4/10

David Cameron’s vision of ‘the big society’ is motivated by a desire to reduce the power of the state and encourage people to take more responsibility for their own communities. The response to this proposal, the only reforming one of the campaign, has been revealing of public attitude. Rather than dispute the ideology of a smaller state, its many critics have argued against the scheme on the grounds that it is simply unreasonable. The most commonly heard view is that all of us are too exhausted by the demands of work and family to go out in the evening and help to run our schools or hospitals or very much else. Take more responsibility for our communities? Get lost, Dave.

If this is really how we feel about our own lives, and not just how we feel about the Conservative Party, the next prime minister – I continue to predict, perversely, that it will be David Cameron with a tiny but perfectly formed majority – the big society will founder owing to a shortage of volunteers. It is tempting to jeer at these Tory pretentions, yet the weary cynicism of the reaction says more about the state of Britain than the clumsy populism of the idea itself. It suggests that our sense of community is extremely weak.

Is this true of Scotland?
Such is the nature of the question, it can only be addressed in small examples. Here is one from my own experience.

Tonight, at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, is the first night of the finals of the Scottish Community Drama Association’s annual festival of plays. When I was a boy in Falkirk, the festival was a huge event involving almost every town and village in the land; throughout the 1950s it attracted teams from Shetland to the Borders. From a peak of 600, the number of entries has steadily dwindled to around 140. That the flame is kept alive at all is a tribute to the volunteers who organise it – exactly the sort of people David Cameron is trying to involve in his big society. But one senses it is all becoming a bit of a struggle.

Whenever I think of community drama – or of the spirit of Scotland in general – I think of one or two exceptional people. There was a woman in the Highlands, Judy Templeton I think her name was, who did remarkable stuff, putting all the villagers of Glenfinnan on stage in productions of – yes, I kid you not – Brecht. I never met Judy Templeton, but I was privileged to know another remarkable personality from the community drama movement, Angus MacVicar.

Angus exemplified for me all the finer qualities of the race. He was kindly and wise, of the old school, a wonderful man. He made his living as a writer of books and journalism. He played golf on the Dunaverty links on the Mull of Kintyre, and passed on his love of the game to his son Jock, who became the golf correspondent of the Daily Express. But Angus also found time to be deeply involved in his local community, as the guiding light, producer and house playwright of the Dunaverty Players.

I adjudicated the Kintyre drama festival for the first time, at the Victoria Hall in Campbeltown, when I was 24 years old. It is still a mystery to me why I was invited. It is possible they’d got the wrong Roy. Hundreds of people turned up, having trudged through deep snow, to follow their favourites night after night, and to my acute embarrassment I discovered that one of the people I was adjudicating was the legendary Angus MacVicar, a man of very much greater experience and knowledge. When we met at the private adjudication, he could not have been nicer. He died some years ago, and I felt that a light had gone out in Scotland.

If the next prime minister is looking for people to help with his big society, it is to people of the quality of Angus MacVicar that he must turn to make it work, but I fear they are no longer as easily found. When I scanned the lists of clubs affiliated to the Scottish Community Drama Association, I noted with sadness that, although the name Dunaverty Players is still there, the club appears to be no longer active, and that Glenfinnan Drama Club has gone, along with many others who once contributed to the enrichment of their own communities.

The most serious decline has taken place, not in the towns as I would have expected, but in the Highlands where this national festival was once strongest. R F Mackenzie prophesied that Scotland’s cultural regeneration, if it happened at all, would be born in the country places, but the evidence suggests that the great man was deluding himself. If you add the closure of rural pubs, post offices and churches to the decay of such valuable institutions as community drama, you are witnessing the evaporation of a national spirit, not its regeneration.

The big society? If the Scottish experience is a reliable guide, Mr Cameron is whistling in the wind. The functioning of any community inevitably depends on one or two extraordinary people – the Angus MacVicars and Judy Templetons of this world – and, for reasons difficult to fathom, there now seems to be a dearth of such people. If I am wrong about this, tell me. If I am right, the last people who will reinvigorate our sense of community, our national spirit, are politicians attempting to enforce it from above. It has to come from somewhere deep within us. How? I have not the least idea. But if the weather stayed fine, Pitlochry would be a lovely place to be for the rest of the week, a poignant reminder of a vanishing Scotland.