First, a gutsy, agenda-setting speech from culture secretary Fiona Hyslop, proclaiming the SNP “the most culturally ambitious government Scotland has ever had” and damning her Westminster counterpart, Maria Miller, for treating the arts “as if they are merely products that can be bought and sold… We value culture and heritage precisely because they are so much more, because they are our heart, our soul, our essence.”
And then, within hours, Creative Scotland finally announced the name of its new chief executive, Janet Archer. Surely no coincidence? Hyslop may even have made a veiled reference to Archer in pointedly mentioning a sculpture at the Parliament celebrating “the contribution women have made to democracy in Scotland”. It’s difficult not to conclude that Hyslop was deliberately aligning Creative Scotland’s fresh start with her own vision for the future.
Regardless, it was a brave and exciting speech. When was the last time a politician vowed to support the arts principally because they’re a “fundamental good”? The Thatcherite argument that the arts must justify themselves economically above all else, or that “difficult choices” have to be made between arts and “life or death” services, is now so pervasive that even Labour councils use it to justify cuts (as in Newcastle) and even arts organisations parrot it, fearing for their future if they don’t.
The most galling thing about Miller’s recent speech wasn’t the familiar demand that artists must “demonstrate the healthy dividends our investment continues to pay” but her failure to acknowledge that they have been doing this for decades. What was the point of all those studies clearly showing that culture generates far more money than it costs to fund, if Miller was just going to ignore them and insist on starting the whole reductive process from scratch?
Hyslop is promising something different, and it could win her a lot of friends in the arts world. But what about everyone else? Miller is clearly furious and will put up a dirty fight. So will Better Together, already smarting at Hyslop’s suggestion that only independence can deliver cultural enrichment. Hyslop’s vision may not be a vote winner, given how easily people are taken in by the philistine lie that culture is a drain on public money. It could put her at odds with her own party, or with the chairman of Creative Scotland, who only a few months ago was lecturing artists about return on investment. And, if the SNP now cuts arts funding, at all, she’ll look like a hypocrite. In short, there are innumerable ways in which this could backfire. And yet she still said it. Bravo.