The ‘cringe’ remains alive and well in the Scottish arts and creative sector public life

Renton and pals: It's shite being Scottish

Hugh Kerr reflects on a “cultural event” he attended on Wednesday

I attended a conference this week with the theme “Access All Areas”, about how to increase cultural diversity in our access to the arts in Scotland.

Organised by Culture Republic, an organisation part funded by Creative Scotland which seems to exist to organise conferences like this and charge delegates £216 .Of course few of the delegates will pay this fee as they are among the cultural apparatchiks of Scotland representing arts organisations or local authorities.They use conferences like this to “network” or to have a good gossip, but hopefully also learn something from the speakers.

Kirsty Wark
Kirsty Wark

Unfortunately they would have learned little from the main speakers today. The conference was chaired by Kirsty Wark, who got rather worried when I spoke representing Newsnet Scotland: she thought I had said “Newsnight”, but I reassured her that her job was still safe! Kirsty is of course Scots and like me comes from Kilmarnock but was privately educated at Wellington College.The first speaker was an extraordinary choice: David Goodhart, the Eton-educated editor of Progress, the Blairite house magazine currently engaged in undermining Jeremy Corbyn.

Goodhart has published a book critical of immigration into Britain, and some people have suggested is almost racist. His conclusion about culture and diversity is that ” to put it bluntly, most of us prefer our own kind”. These views have got him into lots of trouble in the press and indeed he was banned from the Hay Festival. So why, oh why, was he invited to open this conference in Scotland about cultural diversity and access to the arts? I asked the organiser and she said: “We thought he might raise an argument”!

David Goodhart
David Goodhart

His opening speech was a bit rambling but its basic theme was that ethnic diversity wasn’t always a good thing but there was nothing about the arts and nothing about Scotland. It is worth noting that David Goodhart was one of the 200 intellectuals who signed a “Better Together” open letter pleading with Scotland to vote NO and stay with the Union.

The second peaker was an equally bizarre choice: Julia Middleton, founder and CEO of Common Purpose. This is a rather shadowy organisation funded by the public and the private sector to bring together and educate elite leaders in the public and the private sector. It has been much criticised for its lack of openness and its purpose; some have suggested it has ulterior motives to keep a particular elite in charge.  Middleton gave a rambling walk around the platform giving anecdotes from her life and dressing it all up as wisdom. The organiser admitted she had failed to address the conference brief: like David Goodhart she hardly mentioned Scotland.

Fortunately the third speaker was Fiona Hyslop, who pointedly began her speech by rebutting David Goodhart and saying “In Scotland we welcome immigrants and refugees David”. She gave an excellent overview of the arts in Scotland but said we can always do better and people should participate in the community consultations going on across Scotland as part of the empowerment programme of the Scottish Government. Hyslop was a less than successful education minister but she has really grown into the job of culture minister and displayed an easy grasp of her brief.

Fiona Hyslop: third speaker provided welcome relief
Fiona Hyslop: third speaker provided welcome relief

I made the first intervention from the floor of the conference and criticised the conference organisers for inviting 2 opening speakers who knew little about Scotland and one of whom was near racist in his views about immigration. This caused a lively response from the panel and the floor. Many of the cultural apparatchiks don’t like dealing with troublesome questions such as race, culture and national identity.

David Goodhart cheerfully admitted that he knew little about Scotland but claimed he wasn’t really a racist (“we just have to get the balance right”). .Julia Middleton constantly tried to interrupt my  contribution and said that she really came from a common background, being educated in a French Lycee and the LSE and she loved Scotland! Unfortunately the next question was about the relationship between arts organisations and local government in Scotland, and of course the panel knew nothing about that (as Hyslop had to leave for the parliament).

Some may think it a little rude for me to raise questions about class, culture and national identity at conferences like this. As one contributor said rather plaintively: “We want to learn from elsewhere”. Of course it is important that we do get best paractice from other countries. I am a regular attender of Lesley Riddoch’s excellent Nordic Horizon seminars, where we have learned much from our Scandinavian neighbours on public policy. However we learned little from the opening speakers today other than how little they knew about Scotland.

The invitations to these speakers indicates that there is an ongoing issue of what people have called “the cultural cringe”: the assumption that people from outside Scotland must know more than people from within. This has led to the appointment of many of the top jobs in the arts in Scotland of people from outside, for example Creative Scotland, The Edinburgh Festival, The National Theatre of Scotland etc. This is a subject I have written about widely in the past and it has caused a certain amount of controversy particularly among the apparatchiks, many of whom are indeed from outside Scotland.

As I always make very clear I am not against people from outside Scotland coming here and doing important jobs in the arts. I always cite the case of my old friend John McGrath, co-founder and director of 7.84 Theatre Scotland and author of The Cheviot The Stag and the Black Black Oil. .John was from Liverpool but knew Scotland well, having lived and worked here. Many other people have done the same and as Fiona Hyslop said “we welcome immigrants and refugees to Scotland”. However I do think if they are going to undertake a top job in the arts in Scotland they should have a knowledge of Scottish culture and the arts. Ironically Janet Archer the CEO of Creative Scotland was sitting next to me at the conference and I had a chat with her about how she was finding Scotland.

Creative Scotland chief Janet Archer
Creative Scotland chief Janet Archer

Janet was controversially appointed to Creative Scotland the body which disburses most of the money to the arts. She succeeded Andrew Dixon who had admitted he knew little about the arts in Scotland, and because of that lasted less than a year in the job. When Janet Archer was appointed she kept away from the press for several months because she also knew little about the arts in Scotland. At her first press conference she was asked about the future of the Byre Theatre ( closed because of grant cuts by Creative Scotland’s predecessor). Her reply was “I am afraid I don’t know where that is”.  Now Janet Archer is an intelligent woman and I am sure she has learned much about Scotland since her appointment. However with over 100 applications from Scots – who wouldn’t have had to spend the first year learning about Scotland – one wonders whether she was the best appointment.

The issue of the “cultural cringe” is one that won’t go away in Scotland and it is not racist or chauvinistic to raise it. It is of course related to class as well as culture indeed the very essence of what this conference was meant to be about. The fact that the opening speakers were totally inappropriate to address the themes of the conference confirms that it is still a problem.

Scotland has a rich cultural heritage in literature, theatre, music both classical and traditional and in the visual arts. Fiona Hyslop rightly spoke of the importance of the arts to the Scottish economy. Tourism is our number one industry by far, and many people come to Scotland not just for the views but for our festivals. We  must remain open to new ideas from all over the world and in particular we should try and involve the new ethnic minorities of Scotland in presenting their art and culture to enrich our lives. This is already happening in many parts of Scotland and maybe speakers who were familiar with this would have been more appropriate than David Goodhart and Julia Middleton.

Hugh Kerr was formerly an MEP on the Culture Committee of the European Parliament and has written widely on the arts and politics in Scotland.


  1. Of course,we Scots are not genetically programmed to be able to do certain jobs and have to rely on those who are.
    We are still living with the fading memory of empire and elitism.

  2. There is more to it than just a cringe. It’s a deliberate continuation of cultural imperialism from these bodies. Let’s be honest 70 % of these arts posts are taken up by English toffs. It’s not diverse it’s the Anglicisation Of Scotland. Mcdeirmid was right all those years ago. They don’t want Scottish culture to be overdone. They want it as a cinderella culture.

    It’s subversion by the British State. Who is appointing these people? Probably other posh Angles on the boards and trusts. We are a slave nation.

  3. Scottish art at the official level is as much in thrall to another country’s agenda as our unionist political parties are. Everything has to first be sieved through someone else’s mindset before we get it.

    By why engage with an arts body anyway? What useful or creative function do they perform?

  4. The problem isn’t ethnicity but attitude. It’s the Scottish unionists in positions of power and influence who think that either we have no distinct Scottish culture or that it is inferior to English culture. It also has to be said that culture is the SNP’s weak point. Little of substance has been achieved in comparison to what needs to be done despite 8 years of government.

    • Good point. Culture isn’t the only neglected area. There are the economic agencies too.
      Scottish Enterprise – with a massive budget and highly paid staff – achieves very little in terms of value for money. I’ve been surprised our SNP Government hasn’t taken a closer interest in the way SE and Skills Development Scotland are run.

      I hope they do so after the next elections.

      • I know. But what practically could they do? Any ideas? You cannot try to pass a law that only Scots-born applicants may apply for top jobs in the arts. We would be accused of Nazism (we are already). It would probably breach EU rules as well.

        They might commission research and a policy paper on Scottish cultural achievements and take any advice from there as to how arts bodies might build on those achievements. Scottish painters, composers, and writers have always looked outwards to European and wider Anglophone influences whilst trying to form a Scottish response to both these wider international cultural developments and conditions and society at home and to then express their responses within their own cultural milieu. You would think this sort of research might throw up some kind of ideas for policy direction, and provide anybody applying for an arts job in Scotland with some sort of background. The problem with these English incomers is ignorance rather than lack of empathy. As Hugh says, it is not so much their origins as their cultural orientation and knowledge that is the issue.

        Kirsty Wark may have been privately educated to secondary level but she studied Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University which she has always said she thoroughly enjoyed and found fascinating.

  5. Scotland clearly remains subject to an Anglicised meritocratic elite that controls most of its institutions, irrespective of who sits in Holyrood; perhaps what we need is an Omanisation-type strategy, to help lift up all our people – That may be the only real way to overcome inequality, wealth gaps, lack of attainment etc., as many former British colonies well know.

  6. Director Scottish Opera – Preston-born conductor Stuart Stratford
    Director Scottish Ballet – Lancashire born -Christopher Hampson
    Director Scottish Library – London Born- Ruth Washbrook
    Director Edin Tattoo – Plymouth born Brig Alistair Maclean

    I can’t be bothered trailing through them all, but you get my point. Some diversity!

  7. Very strong article indeed.
    All sadly true though it’s not just the ‘Scottishness’ of the failed applicants it’s a kind of perceived class identity factor too. I know a student who recently went for an interview with BBC and found himself the only state-educated applicant. You have to say, by contrast, that STV and Reporting Scotland seem more representative of the full range of Scots voices.

  8. I could tell the meaning of a word like serene
    I got some ‘O’ Grades when I was sixteen
    I can tell the difference between margarine and butter
    I can say “Saskatchewan” without starting to stutter

    But I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land
    Cap in hand

    I could get a broken jaw from being in a fight
    I know it’s evening when day turns to night
    I can understand why Stranraer lie so lowly
    They could save a lot of points by signing Hibs Goalie

    But I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land
    Cap in hand

    We fight when they ask us
    We boast, then we cower
    We beg for a piece of
    What’s already, what’s, what’s already
    What’s, what’s already ours

    We fight when they ask us
    We boast, then we cower
    We beg for a piece of
    What’s already, what’s, what’s already
    What’s, what’s already ours

    Once I thought I could make God a bribe
    So I said I was in His lost tribe
    Getting handouts can be so frustrating
    “Get in line son, there’s five million waiting”

    I can’t understand why you let someone else rule your land
    Cap in hand
    No, I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land
    Cap in hand, cap in hand
    No, I can’t understand why you let someone else rule your land
    Cap in hand, cap in hand, cap in hand, cap in hand


    Published by
    Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

  9. Thanks for all the positive comments as you might imagine I didn’t get such a positive response from some of the arts apparatchiks at the conference! But guess what many of them don’t come from Scotland either! I have written more widely on this in Bella Caledonia and I am sure someone smarter technically than me could put up the link.
    John Robertson is right it’s about class as well as culture and H Scot is right the SNP haven’t been good enough on this. It’s partly do they don’t want to be seen as narrow nationalists or kailyaird types. As I always say you don’t have to be Scots to have a knowledge of Scottish culture but it helps!

  10. Good article Hugh. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, these ‘administrators’ are parasites. Middle class and mostly from England, without a clue about Scottish culture (or perhaps assuming that Scottish culture is just an extension of ‘their’ culture), they can’t or won’t even recognise that there’s a problem with this setup, because I think that they have a different agenda – controlling and furthering their own bourgeois careers. I’ve watched this continue for years now and am sick and tired of it. I know that when i’ve spoken to other artists, including award winning film makers, they express nothing but contempt for the way the arts are run in Scotland, and this is an overwhelming view. Kirsty Wark is also a disgrace, a member of the decrepit British arts ‘elite’ and a supporter of a corrupt Labour Party that contributes absolutely nothing positive to Scotland. The appointment of Janet Archer at Creative Scotland was a farcical decision – what is she there for? Isn’t it interesting to note that since the inception of the Edinburgh Festival in the 1940’s, there has not been one single Scot in charge of the Festival, ever – not one. Cultural elitism and class privilege are still alive and well in Scotland, and it’s time the SNP start recognising that we have a problem that needs solving.

    • In days yore the imperialists used to go to India for a five year stretch and come back to blighty be honoured and respected for living with those awful natives whilst securing the integrity and honour of the glorious nation!

      For 19th century India, replace it with 21 century Scotland!

      How long will it be before Scots are forced into a “cultural reservation” or are we already in one?

  11. I enjoy your articles Hugh. Please keep writing. This one is informative and sheds light on little reported facets of life in Scotland (I was going to write, ‘Scottish life’ but checked myself).

    There were dozens, if not hundreds, of people active in the arts in Scotland who could have been invited to speak. What about playwrights like Peter Arnott or Alan Bisset, or Rona Munro? Or commentators like Joyce Macmillan?

    It’s a form of cultural imperialism which is dangerous because it’s always well hid. English people (and they are always English, not simply Anglophone) appointing other English people out of ignorance and indifference to Scotland and the automatic and unquestioned assumption that to di their job they need to ‘bring’ something of cultural merit to Scotland, not find something of cultural merit here and develop and nurture that.

  12. Too Late to save The Herald

    Under the Editorial


    Too little too late. The paper’s been Gardham’s playground for years.
    During the Referendum siding with The Union, day after day page after page rubbishing Scotland.

    It’s in the same position as the BBC and The Retard. Used to save the Union, now desperately trying to maintain an audience.

  13. Aye Clyde it might not endorse a party. But it sure does endorse a country and its name isn’t Scotland.

  14. On a point of information, Hugh:
    I think Kirsty Wark was educated in Wellington School, Ayrshire.
    Has she been educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, that would put a very different spin on her Scottishness and her relationship with the London mafia.

  15. Del you are indeed correct as a Kilmarnock Academy boy chucked out at 15 because of our working class culture we knew what Wellington School represented, the Ayrshire ruling class!


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