Tim Cornwell: Glasgow cultural scene won’t play by SNP rules
The likely loss of 30 years of Labour control of Glasgow City Council is creeping up quietly. The city’s political junkies wonder how a possible SNP win in local elections in May, sealing a takeover of Labour’s historic heartland, could resonate for Ed Miliband’s leadership or for referendum politics.
Closer to home, however, there’s the impact of a change in government on the city’s cultural scene. In particular, how an SNP-controlled council would shape its relations with Glasgow Culture and Sport.
The £100 million arms-length charitable company with 3,000 employees that runs the city’s major facilities, from museums to sports centres, is the biggest municipal cultural organisation in the UK. Its formidable chief executive, Bridget McConnell, wife of former First Minister Jack McConnell, first took the reins of power as Glasgow’s culture and leisure chief back in 1998. She ushered in the creation of the new body, over SNP objections, and took her place at its helm in 2007.
McConnell can claim career highlights like the £35m refurbishment of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the revamp of the Mitchell Library, or turning round the city’s library service. Her connections and clout extend locally and nationally, well beyond Labour circles, from her leadership of local government associations to her place on the Heritage Lottery Fund board. She probably had more of a role in shaping national cultural policy than some of the more hapless Labour culture ministers.
First things first: no-one interviewed for this article sees McConnell facing the axe. She is a civil servant, not a politician (though a very political animal) and GCS’s status as an independent, though accountable, charity means she’s not an employee of the council.
The Glasgow SNP MSP John Mason, for example, initially opposed the creation of GCS, sceptical of an independent body that could escape with less control or responsibility. He rates McConnell “very highly”.
Radical change may not be on the cards in Glasgow. In an interview with my colleague Stephen McGinty in January, the SNP leader on the council, Allison Hunter, seemed astonishingly vague on her party’s goals. She said she “didn’t know” how she would set about getting more money for Glasgow from the Scottish Government, and said she “hadn’t thought” about what the SNP’s policy priorities for the city would be.
That being said, the chair of GCS would presumably change from its current incumbent, Labour Councillor George Redmond, to an SNP chair.
There are differences between the SNP Government and its Labour predecessors on the culture front, ones that could make McConnell uncomfortable. The Labour agenda was focused on embedding culture in economic and social regeneration, with “social inclusion” the mantra. McConnell herself embraced the notion of “citizens’ rights” and “access”, while GCS papers talk of the “democratisation of High Culture”.
The SNP has embraced culture as part of its argument for nationhood, and as a way of representing an increasingly independent Scotland on the world stage by “cultural diplomacy”. That runs from the overhaul of the Bannockburn Battlefield, to the Expo Fund in the festivals, to an emphasis on international touring.
Alex Salmond has taken a close interest in the cultural portfolio. There’s the issue of bragging rights over the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and the cultural programme, in Glasgow and beyond, that will be planned to go with them. McConnell was a critical player in winning the games for Glasgow, and represents the council on the games’ board; the SNP, meanwhile, will hope to claim the “feelgood” factor in their preferred election year.
There are sides to Glasgow’s cultural scene that fit easily with the nationalist outlook, among them Celtic Connections, a flagship for the kind of music that the SNP can embrace as indigenous, and with plenty of global connections to boot. The same could be said for the Aye Write! festival, with its focus on Scottish literary traditions.
But it’s hard to see Glasgow’s art scene playing by Scottish rules. The contemporary artists who’ve racked up a string of Turner Prizes and the like define themselves as Glaswegian in character; some scorn the notion that they represent Scotland. They are artists who gravitate to Berlin or New York, not to Edinburgh and London; they underline that Glasgow has its own cultural view on the world.
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