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.
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”!
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.
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.
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.