John Swinney and Angus Robertson have just a few months left to avoid Scottish culture car crash

Growing fears of looming arts funding cuts in Scotland

The annual celebration of Scottish theatre was as inspiring as ever at the weekend.

But there was no escaping a feeling of impending doom at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow as actors, writers, directors and designers were honoured for their efforts on and off stage in the previous year.

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As with much of the Scottish cultural landscape, the theatre sector appears to fear the worst over the prospect of funding cuts coming over the horizon within the next few months.

First Minister John Swinney. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesFirst Minister John Swinney. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
First Minister John Swinney. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

It is hard to believe there is a publicly-funded theatre anywhere in Scotland that can plan ahead with any confidence given the levels of uncertainty and anxiety that have taken hold.

At the root of the widespread despair is an apparent lack of belief the Scottish Government will wake up in time to avoid the prospect of a devastating cultural car crash unfolding across the country.

Scottish culture has now endured more than four years of turmoil since the shutdown of the industry in the face of the pandemic, an agonising two-year wait for all restrictions to be lifted and the prolonged impact of the subsequent “perfect storm” the Government has been urged to address since the summer of 2022, when the need for urgent action, and a reversal of annual real-term funding cuts, was clear.

That summer should have been the moment for a sea change in how Scottish culture is supported, to provide stability and for the Government to live up to the commitments made in a national culture strategy published just weeks before the first Covid lockdown.

Angus Robertson is Scotland's culture secretary. Picture: Lisa FergusonAngus Robertson is Scotland's culture secretary. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Angus Robertson is Scotland's culture secretary. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

That blueprint pledges that Scotland is a place where culture is “valued, protected and nurtured”, where culture is “cared for and protected” and is a country that builds on its reputation for “cultural excellence”.

There have been plenty of changes within the Scottish Government over the past four years, no least with two new first ministers. But to the best of my knowledge none of these pledges have been abandoned.

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But I’m sure a poll of arts venues, organisations, festivals and freelancers on how the Government has performed would paint a damning picture.

For me, the Government’s track record has been a depressing mixture of quietly-imposed funding cuts and the non-delivery of promised – and repeatedly championed – new investment.

It is worth recalling that last year’s big promise to “more than double” arts spending was made by then First Minister Humza Yousaf after the Government had unleashed an avalanche of criticism by reinstating a 10 per cent funding cut on Creative Scotland.

Ever since then, Creative Scotland has been waiting to find out its share of an additional £100 million promised by the Government at the time and regularly repeated by culture secretary Angus Robertson ever since.

It is blindingly obvious Creative Scotland needs absolute clarity on this before it decides on £87.5m worth of applications for the years covered by the promised investment in October – especially given that it only has around £40m in its current budget.

But with that £100m pledge missing from the SNP’s election manifesto, unveiled this week by First Minister John Swinney at a new culture quarter in west Edinburgh, as well as Mr Robertson’s latest culture strategy update for Holyrood, the outlook is somehow looking even more bleak with every passing week.

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