Time to Put the Culture into Creative Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 7th 2018

Creative Scotland’s latest stramash has again brought arts funding, decision-making and the role of the organisation centrestage.

It is a recurring problem. After the good news story before Christmas, of Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop announcing – against expectations – a real terms increase in the funding of Creative Scotland, all seemed for a brief period sweetness and light. Then came the announcement on 25 January for Regularly Funding Organisations (RFOs), who have a three-year funding cycle, of significant cuts in a host of success stories – Transmission in Glasgow and Macrobert in Stirling being but two. More seriously, seven high profile, non-building based companies had their funding completely cut, with their sole support the prospect of one year touring funds.

This has brought controversy and resignations, with Ruth Wishart and Maggie Kinloch resigning from Creative Scotland’s Board. Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop indicated a degree of displeasure at the recent funding announcement, tweeting that ‘angst and worry could be avoided if CS is clearer’ to bodies it was funding – in what amounted to an unprecedented public dressing down.

Joyce McMillan observed that Creative Scotland ‘is still an agency that generates blizzards of impenetrable reports and strategies, in all of which principles like equality, diversity and inclusion loom large, along with the importance of arts for children and young people.’ Neil Cooper, writing in ‘Bella Caledonia’, commented that the agency was characterised by a ‘dunder-headed managerialism’ which is ‘a microcosm of a far greater global malaise’ – and that ‘Creative Scotland was an ideological construct from the start’.

This latter point is one that needs to be underlined for, despite acres of coverage and controversies, it is more often than not underplayed. In the 2012 cultural stushie between part of the arts community and Creative Scotland that led to the resignation of then Chief Executive Andrew Dixon, most of the artistic angst focused on problems of managerialism and business speak, focusing on process and immediate complaints such as bureaucratic and cumbersome form filling.

The ideological basis of Creative Scotland was for the best part left well alone, as if this was deemed too dangerous territory for the arts world, or even more tellingly, hoping that if the conduits to the organisation were made more accessible, all would be well and its progressive, enlightened values suddenly and miraculously appear.

The genesis of the idea of Creative Scotland was inspired by the Blairite New Labour era, the age of using culture to sell ‘Cool Britannia’ and to rebrand a once reactionary country as young, vibrant and dynamic – this being the rhetoric of then UK Culture Minister Chris Smith and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Around this arose a language and mindset about the importance of the creative class and creative industries which proved attractive to some in areas such as advertising, market and design, because it presented a new rationale, identity and importantly, a way to win influence and access public funds. This new creative ideology was connected to rethinking the post-industrial landscape as ‘the knowledge economy’ which stressed that although we didn’t as a country make big, heavy things what mattered was the knowledge that workers used to create unique products.

This sounded new, exciting and fresh twenty years ago. However, it turned out that the knowledge economy was – in the words of one of its leading advocates Charlie Leadbeater – ‘living on thin air’; although he thought this a positive. But fatally this concept conflated information with knowledge, seeing them as one and the same. Thus, in one infamous presentation I saw at the time, pressurised Starbucks’ baristas who have to keep up with coffee orders were deemed knowledge workers, because of the need to know increasingly complex ingredients and processes. It was laughable then, it is insulting and demeaning looking back now, but that is the worldview that bodies like Scottish Enterprise promoted at the start of this century.

There is a strange reality in this seldom explored – namely, why did the SNP upon coming to office in 2007 continue with New Labour’s original vision and template of Creative Scotland? It hadn’t been popular from the word go, with the two agencies put together in a shotgun marriage – the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen – but it did give government ministers a bigger, supposedly more prestigious organisation and mission.

This has spawned (as well as in the rest of the UK) an insider language and class, and another degree of official co-option whereby culture has become instrumentalised, and seen as part of economic development, social inclusion, and ticking numerous other government targets. Some participants have thrived in this, some adapted, and some survived while retaining their integrity. But what it has reinforced is co-option and Scottish establishmentism trying to pretend that it isn’t an elite or too close to power. What it has left missing or neglected has been radical anti-establishment voices and the artistic imagination. And it isn’t an answer to reference that a host of once young turks were radical in the distant 1970s or 1980s: that answer is part of the problem.

Some of this can be witnessed as a Scottish expression of wider Western trends: a failure to talk about capitalism and the economy and stand up to power, an over-promise of the potential of culture to unlock so many obstacles, and aging societies where the post-war babyboomer take on things has refused to shift or open up institutions to other voices. All of this produces culture which is everywhere, but isn’t counter-cultural, difficult or challenging.

In Scotland this is combined with a conceit about our own unique story – that from 1979 Thatcher and the first devolution revolution, artists somehow reimagined and even saved the nation, thus embarking on what was called ‘a renaissance’. This has become one of the foundation stories of cultural Scotland, reinforcing the official discourse of recent times which in recent years has become synonymous with the Nationalist story of culture in Scotland: one emphasising our distinctiveness, supposed radicalism, and a national homogeneity and inclusiveness as a community. This has many qualities, but ultimately it lacks a critical voice, space or pluralism, and has led to a kind of Scotland the Brand approach, utilising plays such as ‘Black Watch’ as telling an authorised version of our dissent from British foreign policy, while James Robertson’s ‘And the Land Lay Still’ has become the approved novel that tells how the home rule light was kept in the darkness that was 1950s Scotland.

Attempting to express dissent from the status quo runs into such problems as the scarcity principle. In certain cultural areas, Scotland just doesn’t produce that much stuff. This is particularly true in broadcasting and film. Hence, we have a paucity of TV drama that is seldom commented upon; whereas once upon a time both BBC and STV produced decent quality drama – and I don’t mean ‘Taggart’. Thus, TV comedies such as ‘Bob Servant’ or ‘Two Doors Down’ which are retro-looking, plagiarise and reference the past, and tell the same old generational story that was told in the 1980s by literally the same people, aren’t widely talked about in these terms. Why? Because it is all we have, all some commissioners will aspire too, and of course provide jobs – plus each contains the statutory national treasure (Brian Cox, Elaine C. Smith) whom everyone loves.

This Groundhog Day version of Scotland and the 1980s led to once radical views becoming problematic. Take the cultural miserablism seen in the likes of Peter Mullen’s films which started off giving voice to a hidden, disenfranchised community, and has morphed into one reinforcing a sense of victims and victimhood. Terry Jamieson described this as representing a very partial take on things – ‘an urban Scotland … a Glaswegian Scotland … a grey, dreary, defeated, often dangerous Scotland.’ Again this offers an insight into what happens to once alternative takes when they become incorporated, packaged and represented.

Another dimension in this is how Scotland does public bodies. The Scottish Arts Council originates from 1967 and for its first thirty years not one parliamentary question, debate or inquiry was held on its activities. This was the pre-devolution Scotland of don’t ask and don’t tell, and just let closed society and the great and good get on with running things.

This changed with the Scottish Parliament, but what hasn’t changed has been many of the aspects of what is now Creative Scotland, which has combined the conceit of the new with the practice of the old. The latter has included the problem of Boardism inherited from the previous body, which has seen a bias towards safe, unthreatening hands, with no real sense of diversity or personnel change through such obvious devices as term limits. Meanwhile, respectable society has continued to provide the chair – from Magnus Linklater in the last days of the Arts Council to more recently, bankers Ewan Brown and Sandy Crombie, and now ‘interim’ chair, Ben Thomson. Never has anyone directly from arts and culture managed to become chair or chief executive.

The Scottish Arts Council and now Creative Scotland have never been driven first and foremost by arts and culture, despite the expertise and passion of many of their staff now and in the past. Instead they were first an administrative body, and then became a managerialist agency informed by the ideology of the creative class and culture as a driver of government policy – an approach seen in the latest Scottish Government cultural strategy currently in preparation.

This has to change, but that much is obvious to everyone in the world of arts and culture. The question is what kind of change and how? We have to put culture centrestage in the national cultural agency, and put the insidious language of official ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ in the bin. But more than that we have to make explicit the values which underpin such an agency – how to make it an advocate for a progressive, centre-left, internationalist outlook which represents a modern country.

That isn’t easy on its own – but we also have to have a cultural debate about who gets to decide what our culture is and its dominant stories are, that holds to account the insider classes, and that reflects that generational stories of the babyboomers and 1980s aren’t very radical and future-facing forty years on. How can we as a nation encourage difficult, challenging voices and work, the outsiders, leftfield artists and inspirers of tomorrow?

Our culture has to aspire to more than continually referencing the golden age of Rab C. Nesbitt, remaking ‘Local Hero’ for theatre, or re-telling the past workerist and post-workerist tales of the West of Scotland. How about daring to encourage the ‘diverse assembly’ of culture which too many pay tribute to, while serving up the same old stale diet which at its worst can be as predictable and monocultural as the high unionism of the 1950s? And lets ask how Creative Scotland can aid the artistic imagination, ideas, and lead and be led by a cultural intelligence which looks to the future, not just the past.