Brian Ferguson: Scots culture is all quiet on election front

With the exception of Kirsty Gunn, there hasn't been a lot said about the upcoming election from Scotland's culture industry. Picture: David Moir
With the exception of Kirsty Gunn, there hasn't been a lot said about the upcoming election from Scotland's culture industry. Picture: David Moir
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I cannot have been the only one to notice the lack of intrusion from the Holyrood election campaign into the Scottish arts world - or vice versa.

At the time of writing, only the intervention of author Kirsty Gunn and her claims of the “unofficial politicising” of Scottish literature by Creative Scotland has sparked any kind of serious debate. It has almost felt like business as normal for the cultural sector, with not even a politically-charged play or two to generate a spark of electricity. And with less than two weeks to go until polling day, that seems highly unlikely to change.

It is all a far cry from the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum when artists and cultural figures appeared to be at the heart of the nation’s soul-searching.

The spotlight regularly fell on the National Collective, the pro-independence movement that claimed the backing of more than 3,000 artists and creatives. It also attracted its fair share of critics, particularly in the media, and from the likes of composer James MacMillan, author Ewan Morrison and rapper Darren “Loki” McGarvey before it was wound up last spring.

Oddly, there is little debate in the run-up to next month’s election about the biggest change in the cultural landscape since the referendum – the growing climate of cuts facing artists and organisations right across the country.

The first of those were confirmed within a few weeks, in October 2014, by Creative Scotland, with the Royal Lyceum and Traverse theatres notable casualties, and Scottish Youth Theatre cut completely adrift before a controversial intervention from the Scottish Government.

A wave of far more serious cuts began rolling out last autumn when Creative Scotland, all the national performing companies and the national collections suffered blows to their budgets of up to 3.5 per cent per cent.

Edinburgh’s world-famous and hugely lucrative festivals have had across-the-board cuts of 3 per cent imposed by the city council in the run-up to the 70th season of events.

In fact almost every arts organisation in the land is facing uncertainty over future funding.

One might have thought this worrying backdrop might have provoked some kind of national debate over the case for funding of the arts in an age of austerity - but it looks like we will have to wait for it in Scotland.

With an overall SNP majority at Holyrood looking almost certain, cultural bodies and companies will almost certainly have been turning to the party’s manifesto for clues.

Clear signs of the government’s future thinking were flagged up in March in a keynote speech by culture secretary Fiona Hyslop, in which she set out ambitions for Scotland to become a “world leader” in arts for young people, declaring that they could make a huge difference to their “life chances”.

The manifesto features (uncosted) promises of a new fund to allow every primary school to visit theatres, museums, galleries and historic sites, and a new youth music initiative that will allow every pupil to learn a musical instrument by the time they start secondary school.

But for something truly radical in the next parliamentary term the best prospect appears to lie in a new national cultural strategy - “based on the principles of access, equity and excellence” - which could have long-term implications for the sector.

Only if and when that gets going should there should be something really meaty to chew over.