Culture minister comes under fire for using arts as a nationalist stage

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SCOTLAND'S new culture minister yesterday pledged to draw a line under ten years of tortuous debate over a new arts body but immediately ran into fire for using the arts as a platform for nationalist politics.

Mike Russell told a meeting of about 100 arts chiefs that the "train has left the station" on Creative Scotland, the new arts quango, and it was "too late to turn back".

Costly delays and the failure of a parliamentary bill for the body were blamed for the sacking of his predecessor, Linda Fabiani.

But in his speech and a subsequent press conference Mr Russell repeatedly stressed his hands were tied financially because the Scottish Government could not raise its own funds and operated on a "fixed budget allocated from elsewhere".

He ran into political controversy when he used the arts speech to stray into his other role, that of the Scottish Government's constitution minister, overseeing the planned independence referendum.

He said: "I have, as you know, also got a new role in taking forward the largest consultation, information and education exercise of this parliament – the National Conversation on Scotland's future.

"Given how intertwined a nation's political and cultural identities are, I am delighted to have the chance to help advance our aspirations for constitutional change."

He hoped that the artistic community would "speak loudly and with many voices" on the issue.

Political opponents warned the Scottish Government was starting to see everything through the lens of independence.

Murdo Fraser, for the Tories, said: "Scotland's culture and arts have prospered during our 300 year Union. Day by day, the SNP is retreating into its nationalist shell."

Pauline McNeill, for Labour, said had "clearly exploited" the arts platform to press for independence.

Mr Russell's keynote address to about 100 invited guests at the Traverse Theatre followed a flurry of meetings with theatre, gallery, and museum directors.

A former arts columnist, writer and broadcaster, he was already on first-name terms with many in the room.

With a rapid-fire speech filled with literary and historical references from James VII to John F Kennedy, he endorsed the "arm's length" principle for the arts and stressed access and participation for all.

"It's not the preserve of the elite or gifted few," he said.

He suggested some other art forms could get direct funding from the government as "national companies".

Creative Scotland, which will embrace the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, would be a "leaner, fitter, trimmer" organisation, he said. With resources limited, he pledged to try and "move money from the backroom to the front room" apparently by cutting costs.

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