Margaret Curran: Nationalism is a cultural threat

Margaret Curran MP at the Scottish Labour Conference in 2011. Picture: PA

Margaret Curran MP at the Scottish Labour Conference in 2011. Picture: PA

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TALENT and experience are all that matters – not where a person comes from, writes Margaret Curran

In art, theatre, music and literature, Scots have never been left wanting when we look for talent among our own. From the stunning art of the Glasgow Boys to Carol Ann Duffy’s soaring poetry, we are spoiled for choice. And their influence has never stopped at the Border: the work of Scots fills galleries and crowds theatres around the world. Our art and culture, like most of our ideas and people, have always been outward looking and, because of that, influential.

Today, along with Labour’s shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman, I will be at the Edinburgh festivals enjoying some of the best Scotland has to offer. For me, the success of the festivals is not just in the people they bring to Scotland – and the boost they give to our economy – but in the ideas and vision that take root during plays in theatres around the city, late at night in the Fringe, or in the marquees of the Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens.

Politics (with a large and small “p”) has not been far from the festival this year, and that is right. As we approach the referendum, we should be having a vigorous debate in all sorts of places about the future of our country and our artists, actors, performers and musicians have a part to play. Lyndon Johnson, when he created the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, called art “a nation’s most precious heritage. It is in our works of art that we reveal ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation.”

The referendum, on both sides of the debate, is about imagining a different future, and art helps us to do that. From Burns to Robert Louis Stevenson to Liz Lochead – they have all used their experiences in Scotland to say something bigger about the society we live in; things that help us to look up and out.

In Scotland our approach to art, has always tried to be open, accessible and welcoming. My earliest experiences of painting were in Glasgow’s museums, where public collections inspired generations of young people, and evenings in the Citizens Theatre, watching free previews that brought theatre to audiences that would not have had the chance in other parts of the UK. It was with this in mind, that Alasdair Gray’s comments last year and then again last week took me by surprise. Make no mistake, Gray is one of our greatest living writers, but his comments last week were profoundly wrong and, I believe, out of step with the views of most people in Scotland. We should not see it as a mark of shame that our cultural establishment attracts talent from outside of Scotland; it should be a point of pride. Our art, music and theatre are not threatened or compromised by having people from outside of Scotland at the helm, and the internationalisation of the cultural establishment is by no means exclusive to Scotland.

When Gray questioned where else in the world national bodies would be run by people from outside their country, I did not need to think for long. In England, the opera director of the Royal Opera is Danish; one of the hot tips to replace Nicolas Hynter at the National Theatre is Welsh and the English National Ballet’s artistic director is Spanish. Despite this, I can’t think of any criticisms being levelled at the ENB that it is not English enough.

Nat Edwards, whom I met last week during a tour of the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, was singled out for criticism by Gray. Edwards may have been born in England, but as director of the museum his passion for Burns and understanding of his work is as great as many Scottish scholars I have met. And with years of experience in Scottish museums and the National Library of Scotland, he is well qualified. It’s not his accent that determines his ability to run one of our national arts institutions – it is his passion, knowledge and performance. That’s what he, and others like him, should be judged by.

When we begin to question people’s legitimacy on the basis of origin, it leads to some very puzzling (and often troubling) attitudes. But the truth is, this is nationalism in the raw. While Gray’s comments may have been presented as a point about the safekeeping of our national institutions, it was a deeply political point that threw light on a part of the independence debate that few seem to want to expose and many are reluctant to address directly.

It is this: that no matter how you try to cut it, and no matter how many of the rough edges its advocates try to smooth over, nationalism will always have at its core the belief that the solutions to all our problems can be found within our borders and, in the case of Scottish nationalism, the litmus test for success is to set us against our southern neighbour.

That’s the thread that connects Gray’s comments last week to Alex Salmond’s belief that our country succeeds if we outperform England, even if people are worse off now than they have been for a generation. It’s the complete opposite of what Ed Miliband is talking about when he speaks about a one-nation Britain. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s Nationalism, stupid”.

I’ve always been proud to live in a Scotland that embraces people from outside and is confident enough to send our culture, ideas and people around the world. But, at its core, Nationalism is not about that; it is about establishing barriers and promoting grievances. It is the opposite of what art is about – namely, freedom and self-expression.

The idea that we should actively seek to exclude people from our cultural institutions, regardless of talent or potential, is anathema to that.

We should be encouraging people from far and wide to come to Scotland and to join us in promoting our culture around the world, not erecting barriers to keep them out.

• Margaret Curran is the Labour MP for Glasgow East and shadow secretary of state for Scotland

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