The big climbdown: is it just an empty PR exercise?


By Kenneth Roy

The Press and Journal, the most successful Scottish daily newspaper, perhaps destined to be the only one left, was responsible for the celebrated billboard bringing news of the sinking of the Titanic to the people of Aberdeen: ‘North-east man dies at sea’. Sadly, it appears unlikely that any such billboard was ever distributed.

With the regrettable striking from the record of the mythical drowning man of Inverurie, we must look elsewhere for outstanding examples of this minor art form. As it happens I encountered one a few days ago in the streets of Ayrshire. It was not in the same class as the north-east man who failed to die at sea, but it was pretty good all the same:


Like all the best billboards, this one was memorable for its absence of wasted words. Lord Leveson couldn’t have done it. Marcel Proust couldn’t have done it. The person who writes Fiona Hyslop’s letters couldn’t have done it. It would be even better set to music. But what does it mean? I’ll attempt a deconstruction.

The words Creative Scotland are only too familiar. This is the name of a national arts funding agency set up by the Scottish Government in July 2010. The placing of the word ‘now’ is significant. It seems to denote some change of heart or, at any rate, policy on the part of Creative Scotland. Finally, there is that strange phrase about ‘putting artists first’. Here we stumble on a difficulty. If Creative Scotland is only now getting around to putting artists first, who or what was it putting first before last weekend?

The clues to solving this mystery are contained in an interview with the newly appointed chairman of Creative Scotland, Sir Sandy Crombie, back in the summer of 2010, when he used the word ‘investment’ to describe the funding of the arts. In the same interview he used the phrase ‘creative industries’ as a substitute for the arts. Sir Sandy spoke of ‘the contribution they can make to securing Scotland’s future success’.

On the same day, the Scottish Government helpfully produced figures claiming that these same ‘creative industries’ were worth £5bn to the Scottish economy and were employing 60,000 people. The culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, was quoted in support of Sir Sandy’s mission statements with an exhortation to the creative industries to ‘achieve more’. With less (she added quickly).

The language and the ethos of the arts in Scotland were thus transformed overnight. It was no longer enough that artists should write, act, sing, make music, paint and do all those other things that artists do. They were now functionaries in an industrial process and any support they received from the state was contingent upon ‘success’, a success which would be measured in terms of its value to the economy. Furthermore they were to think of themselves as an ‘investment’ with an obligation to deliver a return. This was the world of bankers, not artists, and there were three bankers on the board of Creative Scotland, including Sir Sandy himself, though very few artists.

But it was rather worse than that – or better, depending on your point of view. The artists of Scotland were required to regard themselves as patriots, contributors to the country’s ‘future success’. The old idea that artists subsidised by an enlightened state could be risky, dangerous people, and not in the least patriotic except when it suited them, which it didn’t often, had disappeared within hours. In the new ideology of artistic compliance, there was no right to mystify, to challenge, or to fail. None of that was bankable.

The new ideology had what the Scotsman tactfully described as a ‘corporate feel’. When I started firing off editorials contesting it as early as September 2010, an arts correspondent from a national newspaper came on the phone to ask if there was any significance in the timing of these attacks. Well, there was still a bit of room for manoeuvre.

Robin Harper tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament raising my concerns – I didn’t ask him to do this; being a good man he just did it – and proposed that Creative Scotland should spend as little as possible on its own bureaucracy until there was an evaluation of what it existed to do. This sensible proposal was ignored: there was no evaluation. Fiona Hyslop and Sir Sandy had made up their minds and it was all aboard the Titanic, minus the man from the north-east.

Two and a half years later, there has been an amazing conversion. Creative Scotland is ‘putting artists first’. Artists are to be at ‘the heart of all we do’. There is no more talk of ‘investment’ and ‘success’. The patriotic requirement appears to have been abandoned with the rest of the crap. The word ‘support’ has been re-introduced. A new humility has been born.

Suspicions persist (of course). Peter Maxwell Davies said at the weekend that he hoped the apparent climbdown was not simply ‘an empty PR exercise’. The thought had occurred to me.

Why should we trust the board of Creative Scotland to have changed its tune? Everything of importance that seemed right to these people two and half years ago they have now turned on its head. The fluency with which one set of core principles has been ditched and replaced by another is impressive. Which set of principles do they really believe in? It is not possible to believe in both.

Yet, apart from the chief executive, Andrew Dixon, who was the mere agent of a misconceived strategy imposed from above, everyone sticks around. Sir Sandy and his board, who have presided over one of the most risible fiascos in Scottish public life since devolution, are deemed indispensable and there is no need to change a single name on the Christmas card list. It gives a whole new meaning to the season of goodwill.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review