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August 8, 2018

Creative tensions

Maybe it’s in its nature, but Scotland’s arts scene never seems very far from a crisis.  Whether it’s the latest national strategy being metaphorically (and literally) ripped to shreds by the artist community or the main public body – Creative Scotland – being routinely attacked by those that it’s supposed to support. Perhaps these tensions are all just part of the creative process. Writing in The National, George Kerevan runs his eye over the cultural landscape, railing against the pervasive influence of the bankers and financiers and marvelling at the self-driven energy of the ever youthful Edinburgh Fringe.


George Kerevan, The National

IT’S festival time in Edinburgh again. Forget all the minor irritations: the incessant swarms of folk far younger than I’ll ever be again; the worry that you are bound to miss the best show, no matter how many events you squeeze in; the occasional run-in with some Metropolitan arse who thinks they are visiting the colonies; and the bar queue at Summerhall. But still, the festival is a reminder that life is not bounded by the neoliberal injunctions to work, consume and make a profit for greedy banks. For a brief few weeks I can pretend I’m not trapped in a post-Brexit Little England.

I know some feel the Edinburgh Festival – Fringe, Official, Books, Comedy and whatever – is alien to Scotland. But here’s my point: most of what happens during the Festival is not driven by corporate interests or the Brit media. The Fringe remains a vast artistic experiment powered only by youthful hope, ambition and the willingness to live in a squat for three weeks.

The Book Festival, chaired by the journalist Allan Little rather than some philistine banker, provides a ferment of debate, political and cultural. And there is much that is local, including a mini-political festival organised by Yes Edinburgh.

There’s a reason this happens in Edinburgh and not Manchester or Bristol. The Festival, from its inception in 1947 during the darkest days of post-war austerity, has always been genuinely international. Meanwhile down south, mainstream contemporary English culture – from Brexit to the BBC – is still suffused with insular, imperial nostalgia. True, Edinburgh lives in a state of creative tension with its festival. But Scotland has always been a European culture open to global influences – which is why that original Edinburgh Festival of 1947 was brave enough to unite conductor Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic in an act of reconciliation with our former Second World War enemies.

If you want to complain about the limits to cultural expression in Scotland, look closer to home than the Edinburgh Festival. After quitting that great comedy show at Westminster, I decided to recharge my cultural batteries – not to say faith in humankind as creative beings. So I’ve gone back to my earlier career as a film-maker, working with my friend Samir Mehanovic, one of Europe’s most exciting directors. The downside is having to deal with a Scottish funding bureaucracy more concerned with ticking boxes and spouting impenetrable business jargon than getting anything made.

Fortunately, I’ve returned just in time for one of the periodic revolts by the arts community against this funding bureaucracy, manifested in the shape of Creative Scotland, whose chief executive, Janet Archer, recently resigned following uproar at a botched attempt to cut funding to some of the country’s most respected arts organisations.

Why does the arts community keep rebelling against Scotland’s main public funding agency? When the incoming (and minority) SNP government inherited Labour’s plan for Creative Scotland back in 2010, it also inherited a Blairite model for managing arts organisations. This involves treating arts bodies as business centres that must deliver a measurable financial return, rather than a cultural one. One cardinal rule of the Blairite model is to appoint senior business folk – bankers to the fore – to chair the supervisory boards of cultural institutions. The theory is that these people have the experience and hard-headedness to run big organisations that flighty artistic people lack. Though why you would assume that bankers – whose serial incompetence and manic greed almost brought the Western economies to collapse in 2008 – should be put in charge of our cultural jewels beats me.

For instance, Creative Scotland’s very first chair (appointed in 2010 by the new Scottish government) was Sir Sandy Crombie, former chief exec of Standard Life and an alumnus of RBS, where he was a senior board member during the disastrous tenure of Fred Goodwin. The board of RBS singularly failed to oversee Fred the Shred, whose arrogance led to the virtual destruction of the bank.

In an echo of history, Sandy Crombie quit the board of Creative Scotland in 2014, after that body’s first chief executive, Andrew Dixon, had to resign following massive criticism by the Scottish arts community. But Dixon was merely following Crombie’s well-known injunction that Scottish cultural bodies had to show – in his own words – “a return on investment”. This from a businessman who was a director of RBS when it lost billions of pounds annually.

The grip over Scottish culture by the bankers and other pillars of the establishment goes wider than Creative Scotland. The current chief trustee of the National Museums of Scotland is Bruce Minto of Dickson Minto of Charlotte Square, one of the UK’s leading corporate law practices specialising in mergers and acquisitions and in private equity. Dickson Minto has a close strategic alliance with the New York-based law practice of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who ran the disastrous RBS take-over of ABN AMRO in 2007.

Previous chairs of the National Museums include Angus Grossart, former vice-chair of RBS, and Lord Smith of Kelvin, he of the infamous Smith Commission. Smith was previously chief executive of Deutsche Bank Asset Management and also had a stint as a BBC governor. I’m not suggesting taxpayers’ cash should be handed out willy-nilly. I am saying that cultural production (and therefore cultural funding) is central to what a nation is and can be. Internal Scottish self-confidence and external recognition as a distinct nation are determined by our ability to express ourselves through film, music, drama and art.

Yet in slew of areas, we are uniquely limited in that self-expression as a result of the current funding model. And by the domination in arts management of bankers rather than of talented Scots from diverse backgrounds who have a genuine interest in their own culture.

Consider this, for instance. In the modern era, TV dominates popular access to political and cultural narratives. Yet Scotland – almost alone of Europe’s smaller nations – is bereft of direct access to its own television in any measure. We have BBC Scotland, which is a pathetic appendage of its parent. And we have tiny STV which has just closed its local TV network having overpaid for the franchise deliberately to exclude Scottish newspapers from entering broadcasting. Sweden has seven non-commercial channels and Denmark has dozens of local channels.

Our limited TV domestic market has consequences. Instead of making home-produced, home-written dramas, as the Scandinavian countries do, Scotland has become a cheap, offshore base for the US-concocted Outlander series. OK, Outlander is giving work to practically the entire Scottish film community. But the cult series is Hollywood in tartan drag, not real Scottish movie-making. Instead of handing out much of the Scottish Government’s new £20 million film fund to foreign companies, we should take risks and fund 15 or 20 independent Scottish movies. That would create a genuine production base instead of us being US television lackeys.

How we fund the arts in Scotland is as much about politics as culture. We need to control our own narrative. That alone should define where we put cultural funding. If we don’t control our own narrative, then we can’t complain if London does it for us. Enjoy the Festival.