Brian Ferguson: Climbdown may be only way out of funding cuts row

Fiona Hyslop, External Affairs Secretary
Fiona Hyslop, External Affairs Secretary
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It was the week before Christmas and all appeared well in the Scottish cultural world. A mid-winter gloom had been instantly dispersed with the wave of a magic wand.

It was the week before Christmas and all appeared well in the Scottish cultural world. A mid-winter gloom had been instantly dispersed with the wave of a magic wand.

Artists and organisations dependent on public funding for their future survival were able to rest easy in their beds, they were assured.

Nicola Sturgeon, her finance secretary Derek Mackay and culture secretary Fiona Hyslop basked in the warm glow of festive cheer at their apparent rescue of Scotland’s arts scene from the edge of the abyss.

And Creative Scotland, the quango which had spent months warning of dark times ahead, was able to lavish praise on its government paymasters after winning an extra £16.6 million – and reflect on a job well done.

Where, then, did it all go wrong to get to the current situation, with Creative Scotland desperately fire-fighting a crisis of confidence - despite securing a deal to maintain its £99m budget for long-term funding for organisations, venues and companies.

It is fair to say the deal brokered for the arts in the Scottish Government’s December budget was better than had been anticipated by many.

But, as I wrote here before Christmas, the impression of a rescue package was largely down to a narrative built up by Creative Scotland.

Its board was even briefing that the nation was facing “cultural carnage,” with “household names” and “much admired and loved institutions” going to the wall, under potential funding settlements from the government.

I believed then, as I do now, that this was complete nonsense.

It simply did not fit with the SNP’s track record of maintaining support for culture in the face of wider spending cuts and the austerity era.

I suggested last month that the run-up budget announcement was an ill-advised charade which could backfire badly when crunch decisions on funding came to be made.

That is exactly what came to pass and both Creative Scotland and the government are now embroiled in both an embarrassing row and a serious damage-limitation exercise.

Stripping children’s theatre companies Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions of long-term funding was the most baffling decision, given the government’s “Year of Young People” initiative in 2018.

There are already worrying echoes of the government’s “Year of Creative Scotland” in 2012 when the quango found itself under growing fire for its management style and bewildering decisions. Its chief executive, Andrew Dixon, blamed poor communication, but was gone by the end of the year.

Creative Scotland, which has faced a tidal wave of online criticism in recent days, has also been publicly berated by Ms Hyslop for failing to properly communicate its decision-making process.

The widespread concerns over the removal of theatre companies from its long-term funding programmes and the need for them to bid into a new fund which does not yet exist will need more than spin and PR to resolve.

There is also the key question of why major changes were imposed on the theatre sector while the government is still drawing up a national cultural strategy.

A comprehensive climbdown of some kind may be the only way to get both the government and its quango off the hook. I’d give it a fortnight.