By Kenneth Roy
The rehabilitation of Martin Gilbert and his company Aberdeen Asset Management, once described as the unacceptable face of capitalism, is complete. A few days ago, Mr Gilbert was photographed beside the first minister against a glittering backcloth of Edinburgh following the launch of their joint sponsorship of the 2012 Scottish Open Golf Championship at Castle Stuart, near Inverness, in July. The deal was announced at a press conference in the ‘historic setting’ of Edinburgh Castle.
How the press drooled: favourable headlines all round; not a word whispered in vain. No one seemed to think it in the least strange that a government – the Scottish Government – was getting involved in the sponsorship of a big-money golf tournament. Imagine (if you are so inclined) the coverage had David Cameron announced that the Westminster government was pouring millions into the PGA Championship at Wentworth in May. Mr Cameron would be left carrying the clubs, making the pasty a mild case of political food poisoning by comparison.
Yet, such is the magic of Mr Salmond, our first minister leaps in with two million quid to ‘save’ the Scottish Open Championship and is confirmed as hero of the sporting nation.
There are, forgive me, just a few things.
First, is the Scottish Open Championship worth saving? It has been hinted that this European Tour event is special in some way, that it has a 40-year ‘history’. It is true that it was first played (at Downfield, Dundee) in 1972, but there have been many blank years because a sponsor could not be attracted. Another in 2012 would not have been out of the ordinary. Its field is often undistinguished since, scheduled the week before the big one (The Open itself), some of the leading players prefer to rest or play links golf in Ireland. Its list of champions is not exactly outstanding.
Second, and more pertinently, the reason given for ‘saving’ it – the boost it will give to tourism in the Highlands – is at least worth questioning. Last year at Castle Stuart was literally a wash-out, torrential rain forcing the cancellation of the final day’s play. Undaunted, the European Tour has decided to return there. It is claimed that this will be worth £3.5 million to the local economy.
Many Scottish charities, including those devoted to the reduction of crime, are suffering because of financial constraints. Some are starving through neglect.
How is this figure arrived at? There is no doubt that the trade in brollies must jump; hotdog stands on the course probably do a roaring trade. But one suspects that most of the £3.5 million ‘benefit’ is accrued from estimates of sales of bed nights in local hotels and B&B establishments. Think about it: the height of summer; the tourist and heritage capital of the Highlands. If the hotels and B&Bs were not stuffed with golfers, there is more than a sporting chance that they would be stuffed with coach parties instead. Bring the Scottish Open to Castle Stuart in late October, and there is the beginning of an economic argument. The weather might even be a little better.
Third, I was unfair yesterday to Martin Gilbert in reminding the world that he was once described by the chairman of the Treasury Select Committee as a sophisticated snake oil salesman. I’m assured that he has learned his lesson, that it is not his fault that he earns £4.5 million a year, and that he is a likeable cove. I am sure he is, by the standards of coves. There can be no reasonable objection to Mr Gilbert wishing to sponsor the Scottish Open Golf Championship if that is what he wants to do with his company’s profits. But that should be the end of the matter: a not particularly important golf tournament bankrolled by a company answerable only to its own shareholders.
Mr Salmond is, however, answerable to the rest of us. What is he doing throwing £2 million at a golf tournament? I personalise this because it seems that it was his personal initiative.
The explanation that core budgets are unaffected because the money has been found from the proceeds of crime is an insult to the victims of crime. If the best these victims are worth is an enlargement of the coffers of the Lukes and Lees of this world, they are entitled to feel aggrieved. Many Scottish charities, including those devoted to the reduction of crime, are suffering because of financial constraints. Some are starving through neglect.
I will give a tiny example. The admirable Theatre Nemo (literally translated: no-one), set up by Isabel McCue following the descent into schizoprehenia and eventual suicide of her son John, works to empower people affected by mental ill-health through creative expression. It reaches 1,200 people a year, taking its inspiring work to hospitals and prisons. It changes lives. It reforms prisoners. Ultimately, it saves the taxpayer money. Don’t take just my word for it. Ask Scotland’s chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, who has written of Theatre Nemo that it is a model of self-help, a prime example of how the vulnerable should be listened to rather than talked at.
Speaking recently to Isabel McCue, I was shocked to learn that, despite Harry Burns’s personal endorsement, Theatre Nemo receives nothing from the Scottish Government, that the landlord of its premises, Glasgow City Council, charges a rent of £7,000 a year, and that the charity now depends entirely on individual donations. It is battling for survival.
How must Isabel McCue feel when she reads that, from the proceeds of crime, the Scottish Government is helping to finance the lifestyles of professional golfers? How must other small charities in Scotland feel? The symbolism of this sponsorship is profoundly wrong. It sends a poor message about the priorities of our government.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review