Don't get your fingers burned in bonfire of the quangos

WHAT'S not to like about the SNP's plans to save £2.3bn of our money each year by kicking 50 of our 200 quangos into the long grass? No country can prosper when 55% of its GDP is munched up by the public sector, and there's no more popular place to start engineering smaller government than by killing off quangos perceived as profligate and overlapping.

But while the principle is right, the reality of terminating a whole slew of quangos is going to be tricky. The fate of two publicly funded organisations under the aegis of Stuart Maxwell, the minister for communities and sport, demonstrates the way the government risks tying itself in knots over the issue. It is a tale of two quangos: while the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) has been combined with Scottish Screen, rolled into a new super-quango called Creative Scotland and given an even bigger budget, sportscotland faces closure days after the decision on 2014.

Despite the pre-election call for a bonfire of the quangos, it is still a surprise to see the SNP seriously considering canning sportscotland, the governing body for all things sporty in Scotland. And by sporty, we mean Olympic and Commonwealth sports rather than the popular stuff like football, cricket, rugby, golf and tennis.

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The main reason sportscotland apparently needs a dagger stuffed through its bloated heart is because doing so was A Manifesto Commitment, and therefore automatically qualifies as a good idea. Refraining from an almost unbearable impulse to start gibbering about the missing 78m to get a thousand extra coppers pounding our streets, or the fact that my kids have less chance of being in a class of 18 any time soon than I have of developing an IQ of 158, I'd instead like to remind the First Minister that Glasgow has just won the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

It should be easy enough for him to remember that, what with his showboating junket - sorry, statesmanlike visit - to Sri Lanka and innumerable appearances on the box in the announcement's aftermath. I'd also like to remind him that while sportscotland had precious little to do with that triumph (even if, with tiresome inevitability, they will claim otherwise), the responsibility for ensuring there are enough medal-winning performances to satisfy national prestige in seven years' time rests squarely on their shoulders.

Nobody is suggesting that sportscotland, an organisation with 140 staff costing 3.32m a year, is perfect, but it is transparent, accountable, has clearly defined goals and, in sports such as swimming and cycling, an established track record of success. Anyway, what is the alternative?

The jungle drums suggest that government reckons local councils can take up much of the workload and that the rest can be absorbed by the elite Scottish Institute of Sport. How so? For a start, the SiS is part of sportscotland, so if you abolish the governing body there will be no SiS. As for the councils, sportscotland's raison d'tre is to be an independent national body able to coordinate sport across the whole country.

One of its primary functions is to oversee applications for lottery grants and then distribute the lolly when it comes pouring in. It is the law that there must be an independent organisation to distribute lottery largesse - it can't be done by government or local councils - so unless we forego the 20m of lottery money currently funnelled into grass-roots and elite sport, sportscotland will have to be replaced with another quango.

Compare that resum to SAC, an organisation which was last week censured for needlessly giving its former 62-year-old boss Graham Berry a 70,000 pay-off because he fell in love and resigned to emigrate to Singapore and get married.

SAC published its annual report this week, which was a user's manual in how to claim credit for everything but acts of war and god. The fun starts as early as chairman Richard Holloway's foreword when, after suggesting that journalists and politicians are not worthy to lace artists' boots (a wholly acceptable point of view, by the way), he launched into an impassioned soliloquy on the "tragedy" of the Iraq war. Not many would disagree, but is this the place to rail against a "monstrous folly of war"?

But it's the figures that are the most fun. They are printed in such huge type that we can't miss them, but their irrelevance is unavoidable. Apparently, 90% of adults took part in arts activities in 2006, up 5% from 2005. Did they? There's no way 90% of my friends did, not unless you count watching telly. And anyway, how on earth do they know?

Or what about the fact that there were "503,000 sales transactions through [SAC's] own art galleries in Scotland". Er, really? But what were the running costs, how many shops are there (is there one in each of the country's 145 funded museums) and how does that compare with successful private art galleries?

Did you know that 140 artists "from home and abroad" showed at Glasgow airport? Do you care? Or what about the fact that 65% of the tickets for the Edinburgh Book Festival were sold in advance. Presumably that will be the same Book Festival where the website crashed, making it impossible for people (like me) to buy tickets for the opening day?

I can't help but think of Vic Reeves' memorable assertion that "86.2% of statistics are made up on the spot".

Gilding the lily is one thing, but this report coats it in finest 24-carat. The list of braggadocio that doubles as the report's calendar of achievement is supposed to highlight the quango's success, but instead chucks in every artistic happening in 2006.

Newcastle-based writer Andrew Crumey's UK literary prize is there; as is Kylie's first stage show since undergoing cancer treatment; even KT Tunstall winning the best songs category at the Ivor Novello awards gets in.

It's not that I hate the SAC or the arts - I loved Black Watch, spend a fortune in Edinburgh each August and am off to see Handel's Messiah in a fortnight's time - or that I think supporting the arts is in any way reprehensible. Yet the haphazard way quango-killing is being approached should give pause for thought. Maxwell may not be sitting in Hampden at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but there's every chance Alex Salmond will be. He won't want to find himself unexpectedly embarrassed by the after-effects of 2007's hasty actions any more than we will.