Brian Wilson: The new culture of control-freakery

Andy Scott and team (and Kelpies) take Manhattan in last year's Tartan Week

Andy Scott and team (and Kelpies) take Manhattan in last year's Tartan Week

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The story of Andy Scott’s attempts to get funding gives a frightening insight into Quango Scotland, says Brian Wilson

Anyone who wants an easy guide to how the Scottish quango system (or Quango Scotland as I will pithily rebrand it) operates should read the evidence submitted to a Holyrood committee by the sculptor, Andy Scott.

Dr Scott is the creative force behind the Kelpies, those wonderful larger-than-life equine structures which adorn the Helix site near Falkirk and have bred offspring throughout the world. Last April, amidst the normal humdrum-hodorum of Tartan Week in New York, two mini-Kelpies made a deeply refreshing appearance.

Our majestic cultural ambassadors stood sentry at the entrance to Bryant Park in the heart of Manhattan while a steady stream of the curious and admiring queued for their kelpie-selfies. The Kelpies were great adverts for Scottish art and originality as well as antidotes to hackneyed stereotypes. Of course, there was lots of media interest.

Much of Scott’s submission describes the bureaucracy he had to plough through to get a little bit of funding support for the Kelpies’ New York debut – the “glacial pace” at which Creative Scotland operated; the total lack of interest from VisitScotland; the interminable meetings with various government suits. Finally, he reached the good fairy at the top of the quango tree – Fiona Hyslop, minister for culture. She duly delivered £20,000 to support the Kelpie presence in New York. But then comes the most interesting – and really quite shocking – passage in Andy Scott’s gentle but devastating indictment:

“This was tied to very restrictive conditions relating to Scottish Government messaging and PR and bound us to only using their allocated PR company in New York. This caused various problems and led to only minimal exposure tied to government-branding messages and prohibited any wider PR or media coverage. In true Scottish style, we missed an open goal.”

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Is this really what we are reduced to? In return for a modest sum of public money, a renowned Scottish artist has to sign up for “messaging” decreed by his political patrons. Never mind good publicity for Scotland, which the Kelpies attract by the trough-load. We are accustomed to nodding donkeys at First Minister’s Questions, but now even sculptured equines have to bray the message or be denied their fodder.

Unsurprisingly, Andy Scott wants nothing further to do with Quango Scotland: “Our experience in achieving the £20,000 support was so arduous and time-consuming that we decided to [turn down other offers to exhibit], cut our losses and return the sculptures to Falkirk… So would I seek support for future events in US or elsewhere? I doubt it. It’s not worth the hassle”.

The most unusual aspect of Andy Scott’s testimony is that he has gone public with it. A vast array of businesses, creative bodies and third sector organisations in Scotland depend on public funding. Many who deal with the Scottish Government whisper the same story of being left in no doubt that discretion is the better part of valour. Criticism is taboo and supportive “messaging” rewarded.

Take another variation on the same theme. There are thousands of organisations throughout Scotland suffering cuts in grant funding which mean real hardships for those who rely on them. Remarkably little is heard directly from them. There is, however, no such reticence from a body which claims to represent the entire “third sector”, the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations.

Its chief executive was a high-profile participant in the referendum debate. This is his perfect entitlement. I question, however, the basis on which he claims to speak for the “45,000 organisations” referred to in his press releases. Many of these might have views of their own – but are not geared to a national media profile.

Martin Sime denounced the Smith Commission’s report on the day it was published and was again in situ for an instant response to the Command Paper. “Legislation on more powers for Scotland doomed from the outset,” he proclaimed, again purporting to speak for “138,000 people in 45,000 organisations”. His views were instantly assimilated into SNP press releases. So that’s “civic Scotland” taken care of.

Many within it might think that the Scottish Government’s disproportionate assault on council funding is of more immediate relevance to their difficulties than Mr Sime’s views on the desirability of “welfare home rule”. But these people are left without a voice, with no place for such sentiments in the loyal pronouncements from a Scottish Government-funded “umbrella body”.

Our major quangos used to be headed by substantial people in Scottish public life who had a tendency to “go native” on behalf of their organisations and did not fear to incur the wrath of the ministers who had appointed them. This might have been irritating for the politicians but it was accepted as part of a pluralistic society.

Can anyone think of a recent instance in which the chair of a public body has remotely inconvenienced the Scottish Government by challenging policy, protesting about cuts in budget or generally being a nuisance in the public interest? It just doesn’t happen – and if it did, the offender would soon be heading for the exit. Instead, loyal quangoteers keep their places in the magic circle of public appointments.

The prerequisite for these matters to be debated is for more people to speak out about their experiences. Whispering about them “in case we lose our funding” serves no purpose. I have heard an extraordinary range of people using that kind of terminology – from universities, third sector organisations, cultural bodies, the lot.

Centralisation of decision-making, a perceived conditionality of funding and the erosion of alternative centres of opinion and influence all need to be challenged in the interests of a healthy, diverse Scottish democracy. Dissent must not become the property of opposing political parties alone.

Every government tries to strengthen its own position but I have never witnessed anything like the control-freakery which is in danger of becoming part of Scottish society. If you doubt that, remember Andy Scott, the Kelpies and the minister’s offer – here’s 20 grand but only if you accept our messaging, our PR company … and a few other suggestions besides.

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