Brian Monteith: Independence no guarantee for arts

Edinburgh International Festival director Sir Jonathan Mills. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh International Festival director Sir Jonathan Mills. Picture: Jane Barlow
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There are no new constitutional powers which would make Scotland’s artists more inspired, writes Brian Monteith

Despite his recent knighthood suggesting establishment endorsement, Sir Jonathan Mills, the director of Edinburgh’s International Festival, remains a controversial figure. Debate about his tenure and his legacy continues among audiences and his interview, published yesterday in our sister paper Scotland on Sunday, in which he revealed he was not commissioning any works on the topic of the independence referendum for next year’s official EIF programme, will only add to that reputation.

There will be some who will be disappointed and see it as an opportunity lost. There will be others who, like me, will by August next year be glad of some relief, some referendum-free zone, where great works and productions can be savoured without recourse to a debate that is already showing many signs of becoming shrill and nasty.

For Mills the easier option was to conceive of some commissions, preferably for either side, that could be ready in time for his last year in post. The more courageous act was for Mills to take a firm stand and find other themes with which to move us or make us think. The anniversary of the start of the Great War – where so many Scots gave their lives – is one such theme where partisan politics need not be present.

That is not to say that the referendum and the issues it generates will be absent. Mills has correctly identified that the Fringe provides more than ample scope for debate, drama, satire and creative inspiration – with a flexibility in staging productions at short notice that the international festival cannot match. Better that the productions that will no doubt evolve have the democratic force of being from the bottom up, spontaneously created by those that feel strongly enough to put pen to paper, stage exhibitions or type up scripts.

The production of The Confessions of Gordon Brown by Kevin Toolis that has had its premiere in this year’s Fringe, scheduled to go to London’s West End and the Labour conference at Brighton, is an example of how writers can provide quality work without having to obtain the official endorsement of the festival itself.

Meanwhile, the talking heads of the Book festival, from historians and biographers to economists and mere polemicists, will no doubt draw crowds and provoke headlines, as they should. And who is to say that Sir Sean Connery will not make an appearance at either the book, film or TV festivals and get his point across? And most certainly the comedians will use the referendum to poke fun at both sides and give us much needed light relief.

There is an argument that says that independence is a precursor to greater artistic achievement, and without it Scotland is somehow being disadvantaged by being in the UK. For Mills to not commission any work will be seen as symptomatic of a Scottish cultural cringe, even though he is Australian.

The claims made for independence rather remind me of the many articles that were published or speeches that were delivered in the campaign for devolution and then in the early days of the Scottish Parliament by those claiming to speak for Scotland’s so-called cultural community. All we needed, went the argument, was a new political institution and the nation’s artistic juices would flow like never before, more money would be available and greater confidence would deliver a cultural renaissance.

It did not take long before such preposterous self-delusion was put to the sword. The hallmark of Scotland’s artistic governance under devolution has been the endless reviews, strategies, consultations and changes of people at the top. The sheer waste of money and effort to produce countless documents that have been binned and change names of organisations is worthy of a satirical opus itself.

Since 1999 the public administration of the arts in Scotland has been the sole responsibility of Scottish governments and their appointees, but it has to be said, without a great deal of accountability or even interest to many at the Holyrood parliament.

Yes, there have been cultural triumphs, such as Gregory Burke’s play Black Watch, produced by the new National Theatre of Scotland, but these did not require constitutional change to happen – Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet were formed many years before devolution – all it required was political will and consensus rather than division across the artistic community.

Indeed, it was a Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland who split the Scottish Arts Council from the parent body in London and also formed Scottish Screen.

And not all organisations have prospered under devolution: the Scottish Opera Chorus became – like a number of artistic organisations – a victim to tighter budgets and changes of direction.

Where the claims for independence especially look weak, however, is in the failure to recognise that since devolution Scotland’s artists and arts administrators have had responsibility for their own successes and failures.

The ten Scottish ministers in 14 years holding the cultural brief have been able to create an entirely different climate, so much so that the recent speech of Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop has been acclaimed for its art-for-arts-sake sympathies in contrast to that of Maria Miller’s more commercial outlook in London.

But that’s the point. The powers are already in Scotland. Gaining new powers over currency, passports, welfare and taxes offers nothing in the cultural world that cannot be done already. Were independence to fall on the lap of Hyslop or her successor there would be no new powers at her disposal – but she would have to make up for the drop in lottery funding that would undoubtedly materialise.

Culture is not just about artists in the traditional sense, however. We are all creative, for we all shape our culture. When Sir Jonathan Mills had to consider next year’s programme, he had to look at the broader canvas of what the EIF should deliver. The time for looking at independence would be once it is reality, for then it would be our culture.