Democracy and the power of music … and of people’s voices

My fingers are sore from typing thank you emails, and I still have dozens to write; the swift campaign to save the City of Edinburgh Music School this past fortnight has garnered enormous support, and we are all immensely grateful to everyone who was prepared to stand up and recognise that Edinburgh City Council’s proposal to close the Music School was wrong by any standard (not least financially – the money for the School originates from the Scottish Government).


It was enormously heartening to see and hear such passion being expressed by students, parents, former students, former parents and people who had just simply encountered the Music School and understood what it is achieving in musical excellence (a phrase I do not use glibly) for children and young people from all walks of life across Scotland. The campaign was successful: the voices of these people were heard, and Councillors across party borders listened and worked together to make sure that an amendment to the original proposal was proposed, voted upon and passed, saving the Music School.

Reflecting on the last fortnight, there are countless observations to be made, and dozens of lessons to be drawn; here are just three of them:

In a democracy, people’s voices can be heard – but only if you speak up. This is one of the most powerful lessons of the past two weeks. From the moment we had first sight of the internal briefing document which underpinned an apparently innocuous line in a set of budget proposals due to go out to public consultation, people started speaking out to express their views, and things started to happen. People wrote to their Councillors and started approaching politicians on Twitter; they told their families and friends, and they did the same. Councillors listened – they really listened – and started asking questions, subjecting the proposal to a scrutiny that was impressive. Especially considering how much a Councillor is paid (not much), the level of direct engagement and the swiftness of response was astonishing. The same was true of MSPs, some of whom stood up at an early stage in support, and very prominently enabled the truth to emerge, helping the balance of arguments to sway towards maintaining the Music School. Andy Wightman MSP’s question to the First Minister in First Minister’s Questions last Thursday was masterful in illuminating the situation; equally elucidatory was Nicola Sturgeon’s reply. They knew about the issue because it was on everyone’s lips; it was on everyone’s lips because people were speaking out about it and using the democratic channels open to them to do so.

Being a public servant is really, really hard – but ultimately so very important. Having spent the past two weeks engaging frequently with public servants, from elected representatives (Councillors, MSPs, MPs and  members of the House of Lords) to Council officials and the lovely, helpful and impressively well-informed clerks who work in Edinburgh Council Committee Services, I can say with confidence that it is not at all easy to meet all the needs of all the people and groups for which they have responsibility; in fact, this would be an understatement. Balancing budgets in straitened times is – excuse the language – damned hard, and there are only a certain number of ways to cut the cookie. Officials and Councillors know that cuts will not make people happy; in fact, the opposite is true. This does not excuse the lack of transparency in the budgeting process, but it makes it easier to understand why people felt it necessary to obfuscate (and the scale of the endeavour makes it entirely conceivable that the origin of the money to fund the Music School has been lost in the mists of time). It is really hard to be honest and open when dealing with really complex issues in a society which operates by communicating via simple sound bites, but we have to work together to find a way to do this.

Music has the power to make a difference in the world. Music really does make spirits soar. It speaks to our souls, and the language of Music unites us across every possible boundary or barrier you can think of. In the words of the great violinist Nicola Benedetti, who spoke out strongly in support of the Music School,

“We all need a little bit of magic and beauty in our lives – great musicians, people who have dedicated their lives to doing the seemingly impossible, can provide this. 
These students, excelling in this field, have the potential to deliver uplift and beauty to their societies. Continued support for the arts in general is an investment in the health of the country.”

At its heart, this is what was driving us.

So – a busy fortnight draws to a close, and the right decision has been taken on the Music School, but there are many more causes to be highlighted and addressed – causes that affect us all – and the key lesson of the past two weeks is that we do all really need to become engaged and involved in these.

One final observation for now – communities who are passionate and energised make a difference. One of the most wonderful outcomes of the intensity of the past fortnight has been the strengthening and broadening of what was already a community with a shared interest and shared gratitude for the work of the dedicated educators and specialists at the Music School. People have come together and forged friendships in the heat of the fight. My new ‘Best Friends Forever’ are too numerous to mention. Communities with a cause – and the courage to use their voices – can and should work together to make a difference.

Together, after all, humanity is stronger and better.


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