Big Idea – Just Double It


JOYCE MCMILLAN on BIG IDEA: JUST DOUBLE IT for Scotsman Review, 20.7.07

SCOTLAND’S NEW First Minister, so we’re told, is a man in a hurry; without a majority at Holyrood, he needs to make an indelible mark on Scottish affairs before his plans begin to frustrated by the relentless logic of parliamentary arithmetic.  So I have a suggestion for Alex Salmond, this week.  He should think of a number, and then just double it.  In particular, he should think about the £234 million a year the Scottish government currently spends on every aspect of Scotland’s  artistic and cultural life  – from libraries, museums and festivals to the national arts companies and orchestras, plus grants to the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen – and then just raise it, to a cool half billion.  There are at least a dozen good reasons why he should do this, and do it now; here are some of them.

First, he should do it because he can.  Scotland’s devolution settlement  is a complex one, and there are many key areas of policy that are still profoundly affected by the decisions of the Westminster government.  But the arts and culture are not in that category.  They are clearly and solely the responsibility of the Scottish Executive and Parliament; and what’s more, the sums of money involved are not huge.  At the moment, the cultural spend represents about 1% of the Executive’s total budget, a mere drop in the ocean compared, say, with the vast sums spent on health.  To raise that figure to 2% would be a relatively simple operation, well within the new administration’s capacity and remit.

What’s more important, though, is than the SNP administration should have no difficulty in demonstrating that such a hike in cultural spending represents a terrific investment in Scotland’s future.  Just think, for a start, of the range of vital, life-enhancing local activities and centres on which cultural spending has an impact, in communities across Scotland.  Then think, at every level, of the huge “bang for the buck” delivered by cultural spending, far greater than in any other area.  The cultural industries are famously, and inevitably, labour-intensive; they employ large numbers of people relative to their size.  At the moment, throughout the UK, many of them run on a low-wage – and sometimes no-wage – culture that is a national disgrace; it therefore wouldn’t take much, in the way of additional spending, to put Scotland in the forefront of developing excellent education and career paths for creative people.

More than that, though, the impact of cultural spending on national life, and on Scotland’s international image is out of all proportion to its size.  So far, the most imaginative single cultural initiative of the devolved Scottish government since 1999 – the founding of the National Theatre of Scotland, on a completely innovative 21st century model – has cost the Executive something like £12 million; I defy anyone to identify any tranche of spending, on a similar scale, that has had more impact, or that has produced such a powerful piece of evidence of Scotland’s potential contribution to global debate as the NTS’s Black Watch, about to depart on its first international tour to Los Angeles and New York.

Most important of all, though, is the contribution that a rich, full national cultural life can make to the cause that should be closest to the SNP’s heart; and that is Scotland’s development into a self-confident and outward-looking nation, fit to make creative and balanced decisions about its future.   Across every art-form, from film and literature to theatre, the visual arts and every kind of music, Scotland has world-class artistic practitioners, internationally recognised as major contributors to global culture.  The only problem with this booming cultural scene of ours – beyond a permanent worry over where the next penny-pinching project grant is coming from – is that millions of Scots are not fully aware of it, or of its life-transforming impact.  It often hasn’t the resources to reach out, to promote itself, to celebrate its achievements; and crucially, it usually lacks the cash and clout to gain access to the big Hollywood-and-London-based popular media of the day, which increasingly shape most people’s cultural experience.

At a stroke, this week, Alex Salmond could begin to transform that situation, and create a whole new momentum in Scotland’s cultural life.  The previous Lib-Lab Scottish adinistrations tied themselves in conceptual and political knots over cultural spending, making Faustian bargains with concepts like “entitlement”  and “delivering social goals” in an effort to release funding for what they feared was an unpopular form of spending.  For this new government, though, there should be no need for that kind of apology.  So come on, Alex.  Seize the moment.  Think of that number, this week; and then – just double it.


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