Arts blog: ‘Perhaps there aren’t more Scots in arts jobs because they work elsewhere’

Laurie Sansom the National Theatre of Scotland's new artistic director
Laurie Sansom the National Theatre of Scotland's new artistic director
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ON this page last week I wondered why anyone would have a problem with the National Theatre of Scotland’s new artistic director not being a Scot – the more talented outsiders who want to live and work here the better, surely?

The answer came in a provocative opinion piece by Pete Martin in yesterday’s Scotsman.

Scottish Ballet. Picture: Getty

Scottish Ballet. Picture: Getty

“I’m no nationalist and I appreciate it always sounds petty, narrow-minded and protectionist to point out that Scotland gives away many of its top cultural jobs and greatest creative opportunities to people with no great connection to Scottish culture. But it’s true,” wrote Martin.

Well, it’s true, as Martin later pointed out, that an awful lot of Scotland’s major arts institutions – Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the National Theatre of Scotland, the Traverse Theatre, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival – are currently run by people who didn’t grow up here. Whether that means these people have “no great connection to Scottish culture” is another matter.

Martin’s argument is that only people who spent their formative years in Scotland are capable of the “profound understanding of Scottish culture and the kind of osmosis of the highs and lows of Scottish life” that should be an essential requirement for a top creative job in this country.

I have two objections to this. One is with the argument itself, which I’ve heard a few times before (mostly from nationalists). What, exactly, do people like Pete Martin think happens during these formative years that is so beyond the comprehension of an incomer? Reading The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a teenager instead of as a grown-up? Being personally scarred by this country’s particular form of sectarianism? Being forced to learn about the Highland clearances in school rather than voluntarily doing it yourself later? Summer holidays in Millport? Those who make the argument tend to be curiously shy about these specifics – perhaps because the more specific you get, the more petty and parochial the argument begins to look, and the easier it is to challenge.

I have, I admit, a vested interest in challenging Martin’s argument. I’m the arts editor of two Scottish national newspapers (this one, and Scotland on Sunday) and yet – sorry Pete – I didn’t grow up in Scotland. Does this make me unqualified for the job in some way? (For the record, I’ve been living in Scotland for 20 years now and am married to a woman who grew up in Fife – not that this should matter, but perhaps it’ll keep the crazier commenters on at bay)

My second objection is a practical one. Let’s say, for a moment, that Pete Martin is right. How do you go about ensuring born-and-bred Scots get top Scottish arts jobs more often, when people apply to them from all over the world (because, ironically, of the famous vibrancy of Scottish culture)? There’s only one answer unfortunately – rig the system in favour of people who were born or grew up here. And that, I’m afraid, would open us up to exactly the kind of accusations of pettiness and protectionism that Pete Martin is so keen to distance himself from. And probably a few legal challenges too.

Martin concludes his piece by saying that “distinctive culture” (do we really not have that now? Are Trainspotting, Black Watch, Morvern Callar, Lanark and Little Sparta not distinctive enough?) is essential to “confidence and prosperity”. I would argue that confidence itself breeds confidence, and that worrying about whether we have enough born-and-bred Scots in top arts jobs – instead of, say, being delighted that so many outsiders want to live and work here – is a sign of a chronic lack of confidence.

Here’s a theory. Perhaps part of the reason there aren’t more Scots in high profile arts jobs in Scotland is that the most talented of those born and bred here often end up leaving to work elsewhere. And why? Two reasons, I suggest. 1. If you’re ambitious, why wouldn’t you look beyond the borders of the small country you grew up in? 2. They leave in order to get some breathing space from this country’s infamous cultural cringe – of which this argument is a classic example.