The day after – what now for Scottish cultural policy
Two days after the Scottish referendum and I remain ‘wrung out’. This has been an extraordinary journey, with years of fascinating debate and dialogue transforming into a final two weeks of what could only be described as an onslaught of press and media campaigning.
The opportunity to consider what a country could be like and how you might contribute to its making is something I will remember for the rest of my life. This discussion took place in many and various arenas, from the Scottish Parliament building to community halls, to the dinner table. My own favourite forum was Nordic Horizons (1) where invited academics and professionals from Nordic countries would debate a particular sector or initiative, from waste management to culture. The central figure in Nordic Horizons, Lesley Riddoch, became a star of the yes campaign, publishing an influential book (2) and taking the debate to communities around the whole country. The Edinburgh International Book Festival was perhaps the intellectual high point of the process, taking place less than a month before the vote, with many of its 800 authors either formally or informally engaging with the issues.
However not all debate was so patrician. Culture did not feature prominently in the referendum White Paper (3), with proposals to divest the BBC of its Scottish resources to create a new public sector broadcaster attracting most attention. But culture played a part in the referendum. The pro-independence National Collective of Artists and Creatives (4) provided a full bodied approach to cultural imaginings of Scotland, far from the rarefied atmosphere of the university or gallery. Once again I had a favourite cultural offer in the form of The National Theatre of Scotland’s ‘The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show’ (5). Not all cultural sector interventions were pro independence. For example a group of Scottish publishers penned an open letter voicing concerns that VAT changes would challenge their future sustainability, and 200 UK celebrities signed up to a letter opposing independence.
Social media was a key source of information. Some journalists maintained a professional eye on proceedings. (Channel 4’s Paul Mason was an exemplar, and even provided us a steady supply of Northern Soul music through his twitter feed during the purdah period of voting.) However, many did not and the mismatch between your eyes and ears, and the television screen and radio broadcast led to a dependence on social media to keep abreast of events.
Passionate democracy did result in a 84.5% turnout, the highest in UK electoral history. It also meant almost everyone declared their voting intention, and as you can see mine was pro independence. It was also a turbulent and intense final two weeks, particularly from the day a poll put independence ahead. Out of the panic arose imprecise guarantees of more powers and the first passionate political speech supporting Unionism delivered by Gordon Brown, a previous Prime Minister. I was, however, one of the 780,000 postal voters and this was all too late for me. In the end 45% of the vote was for independence and it was decided by different generations. 73% of the over 65s voted No and 71% of 16/17 year olds voted yes. Many of us are still processing the emotional and practical aftermath and the early signs aren’t good.
It is hard to say what this means for the creative and cultural industries in Scotland. Devolution has meant some clear differences in approach. The Arts Council became Creative Scotland followed by the well publicised ructions in unifying creative industries and the arts under one umbrella. National arts companies are separate, with an arguably divisive direct report to the Scottish Government. Local Government is less diminished than in England, although some Councils have slashed arts funding. However, it seems clear that devolution has been good for the arts in Scotland. Government funding commitments to the arts are under pressure, but remain firm. The strength of Scottish Higher Education is rightly celebrated, just think of the influence of Glasgow School of Art on the visual arts world in recent years. Most importantly Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence provides a much more effective educational ethos and platform for arts and creative activities in schools.
There is also some difference at the ideological level. This was clearest when Scotland’s Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop made an impassioned commitment to arts funding for art’s sake, criticising the instrumental arts funding agenda that has dominated the UK’s approach. The creative industries entrepreneurship mission also feels different in Scotland – an urge to monetise intellectual property tempered with an identity that honours renaissance values. A creative sector packed with micro businesses is just as much a challenge for Scotland’s enterprise agencies as elsewhere, but an agency like Highlands & Islands Enterprise is comfortable investing in a mixed creative economy of public, private and third sector interdependence. Speed of privatisation in Scotland (of the health service for example) has also been constrained by devolution. The city-centric approach to strategy that is gaining political ground so rapidly is also more mature in a country where the resource battles with the central belt cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh have been going on for decades.
So what next? Creative Scotland has laid out a ten year strategy and is busy translating the findings of a range of sector reviews (I am currently working on one of them, a review of the Scottish literature sector) with new delivery plans. The country’s major arts organisations are awaiting the results of an open call for three year funding from Creative Scotland which will shape arts provision for the immediate future. Scotland’s enthusiasm for playing a full part in Europe came to the fore in the referendum campaigning and this may result in a re-energising of European relationships amongst Scotland cultural and creative organisations. However cultural policy has not caught up with the devolution opportunity as yet and remains a ‘scaled down version of British cultural policy’ (6). There are clear opportunities in grasping the opportunities of the Curriculum for Excellence and the new Community Empowerment legislation (7). A rethinking of how creative industries are aggregated and framed could also lead to more effective interventions by agencies. The Youth Guarantee schemes of Finland and Sweden have clear potential in Scotland, and we should consider the national potential in schemes like the Edinburgh Guarantee (8) for culture and creative graduates and practitioners. Nothing embodies Scotland’s renaissance heritage and knowledge economy ambitions better than the library. A current review into public library provision will also air discussions about an integrated national library service that could provide all Scots with a more ambitious digital and analogue resource.
There is an upbeat commentary that the referendum has changed politics for the better. But faced with the incompatibility of a ‘first past the post – winner takes all’ electoral system and five year fixed term Westminster governments I am struggling to see this. There will be creative people that do, and I look forward to supporting their efforts.
‘Only da sea can greet an sing at da sam time:
shade an licht: cobalt, ultramarine an dan
da lönabrak – a tize, a frush o whicht.’
Extract from the Shetlandic poem ‘Discontinuity’ by Christine de Luca
2 Blossom – What Scotland Needs to Flourish, Riddoch.L, Luath Press, 2014
3 Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, Scottish Government, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-78412-068-9
6 Schlesinger. P, in After Independence – An informed guide to Scotland’s possible futures for anyone who is pro or anti independence, unsure or just generally curious, Hassan.G & Mitchell.J, Luath Press, 2014