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Discussion Forum CULTURAL POLICY AND NATIONAL IDENTITY IN POST-DEVOLUTION SCOTLAND 5 February 2007

Notes on a debate held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh at 6.00 pm on Monday 5 February 2007, and jointly sponsored by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow. Chair: Speakers: Professor Philip Schlesinger Professor David McCrone Richard Holloway Vicky Featherstone

Professor Michael Atiyah, President of the RSE, welcomed the speakers and audience to the event, and introduced the Chair, Philip Schlesinger. Professor Schesinger noted that the subject of national identity and cultural policy was an extremely topical one, given the intensity of the current debate on Britishness and its meanings, on the future of multiculturalism, and - in Scotland - on the Draft Culture Bill recently published by the Scottish Executive. He introduced the first speaker, Professor David McCrone of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh. Professor McCrone titled his talk Wilful Fragments - Imagining Scottish Culture, and explained that the phrase wilful fragments is a quote from the novelist William McIlvanney. He said that it referred to a set of familiar tropes about Scotland which McIlvanney had observed: the idea of the nation as somehow fragmented, divided, incomplete and lacking in continuity. There was also the idea of the famous antisyzygy, as conceptualised by MacDiarmid and others; the split personality, the pessimism, the cringe, the national cultural pathology, the inferiorism, and - most recently - the Scots crisis of confidence, so persuasively proposed that the Scottish Executive decided to invest a great deal of taxpayers money in combatting it. McCrone asked why such mythic structures have such force; what, he wondered, if Scotland is not deviant, but actually remarkably well adjusted to its role as a small north European nation, nested for the moment in a Union not only with the rest of the European Union, but with its closest neighbours in these islands? McCrone quoted Donald Dewars view that culture is defined as who we are, and how we carry ourselves - a phrase which understands the nature of culture as a series of symbols related to social practices. Yet we still seem tempted by a mythopoeic search for authentic Scottish culture, rather than accepting that a living culture is a site of dialogue and dialectic - even dialect. Scotland naturally includes a great diversity of culture of experience; it cannot be boiled down to one Scottish culture, and when the attempt is made to boil it down to one thing, that process leads to assumptions about cultural inferiorism. McCrone believes this process to be a legacy of 19th century romantic nationalist thought, the idea that a people, clearly defined, should have the right to express their essential national identity, also self-evident and clearly defined, through independent statehood. This idea, he argued, no longer has much validity, if it ever had; nations are not so easily defined, and nor are their different cultural identities. Cultural traits are not absolutes, but strategies and weapons used in the competition for resources, as and when they are effective. In this respect, said McCrone, the story of the creation of the National Theatre of Scotland is interesting, since the idea of an NTS was associated, for almost a century, with fears of a monolithic central institution which would seek to express a single idea of Scottish identity. This has been brilliantly avoided in the model adopted for the new NTS, which has diversity written into its very structure. We can, in other words, assemble our wilful fragments of Scottish identity in any way we want; and Professor McCrone finished by quoting Cairns Craig, who argues that the condition of being 'between' is not the degeneration of a culture, but the essential means of its generation. Richard Holloway said that his contribution would consist of ten points, one postscript, and a thin line of commentary. His points were: 1) 2) That good art will continue to be produced in Scotland, regardless of whatever cultural policy is implemented; policy is important, but thankfully not that important. That subsidy is nonetheless needed, above all to sustain elaborate and complex art-forms like opera and ballet, and - even more importantly - to liberate artists, who, as Virginia Woolf put it, desperately need the equivalent of a room of their own and 500 a year in order to be able to create.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows

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That enthusiastic consumers of the arts can over-hype their impact in transforming human behaviour. Neither art nor religion redeems, but both provide a colourful backdrop to the human condition. That next to love and compassion, art is nonetheless the area that show us, humankind, at our best, striving towards truth and beauty. That art can transform lives, despite (3) above. That politicians can be put off by the attitudes and style of members of the arts community. Their funding of the arts therefore tends to be motivated not by whole-hearted enthusiasm, but by a wish (a) to keep the chatterati from open mutiny, as opposed to routine grumbling and (b) to support their own social inclusion agenda. Arts organisations therefore tend to become bogged down in this terrible language of social policies and targets, what Holloway calls a toxic semantic loop.

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That art can certainly have good social outcomes; but it needs to exist first, in and of itself. That as with all other forms of public spending, the middle classes benefit disproportionately from arts spending; therefore outreach and inclusion matter. That the slippery language of cultural entitlements has entered the game of arts funding, probably in an attempt by the Executive to lure local authorities, with what Holloway calls honeyed words, into spending more on the arts. That the adversarial relationship between cultural pundits and politicians does not help, and only drives all parties into more entrenched positions.

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Postscript: The new category of national companies has been created, and they have been taken into direct funding from the Executive. Some may have reservations about this, but it is what the Boards and Chief Executives of the national companies wanted; Holloway hopes they will like it, now they have got it. The new Creative Scotland has been created, out of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. The latter is apprehensive, because, as Holloway says, the marriage of a wee man and a big wummin can be problematic; but Holloway is hopeful, nonetheless. Vicky Featherstone pointed out the many complex strands that go to make up a sense of national identity or belonging; the rich nexus of people, landscape, symbols, history, and relation to the self as an individual, that helps generate a sense of belonging - including national pride, national shame, and varying individual attachments to the idea of nationality. The acquisition of such a sense of identity takes many years. Featherstone believes, though, that theatre is partly a search for identity; and that the more complex and sophisticated that identity is, the harder and better the search will be, and the more rewarding. Artists in Scotland produce terrific work in the course of that search for identity, capable of generating truly thrilling events that grip the audiences imagination; cultural policy has to been as a stepping stone towards that process, and Featherstone is conscious that there have been some imaginative steps made in cultural policy since devolution, not least the First Ministers St. Andrews Day speech of 2003, and the setting up of the National Theatre itself, which she described as a result of devolution. This kind of step represents a huge opportunity, and it has been taken; the NTS has already worked with more than 400 people, and played to audiences totalling 160,000, in 60 places across Scotland. But the role of cultural policy can act as a diversion; Vicky is Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the NTS, but these days has to use the Chief Executive title more often. Ms Featherstone then went on to describe the development of the Black Watch project, from its inception on a quiet day in her office in 2004, through the involvement of writer Gregory Burke, to its triumphant final production during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006. The idea was simple, but the structures of the NTS supported its development in terms of scale and energy. It drew on the golden thread of Black Watch history mentioned in the play, and on the wider history of Scotland, but also on the golden thread of Scottish theatre history - 7:84, the Cheviot - and on the wider Scottish cultural tradition, on the marriage of modern and traditional music that recalls the late Martyn Bennett, on the Edinburgh Tattoo. And so it draws deeply on Scottish culture to create an epic, universal, world-class story, generating a national and international response so great that the NTS simply cannot meet it. The idea of the NTS, in other words, is not to define national identity, or indeed to define anything, but to throw open the doors of possibility, and enable artists to create.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows

DISCUSSION SESSION 1. Prof. Schlesinger asked whether our three speakers had not been too upbeat in their assessment of the Scottish cultural scene, given the various changes and challenges it now faces. Vicky Featherstone responded by observing that if you want to be creative, you cant dwell on negatives. Richard Holloway said that he took heart from the fact that Scotland had avoided a Welsh-style confrontation over the proposed abolition of the Arts Council, and said he believed that everyone genuinely wanted the best for Scotlands cultural life. When it comes to supporting this huge Scottish success-story, it really is a no-brainer, and we are winning the argument. Of course, I have to be upbeat, because I have role in delivering it. But I think there is a lot to be upbeat about. Professor McCrone argued that so far as creativity is concerned, uncertainty is a good thing. Look at the ambiguity of Black Watch. The more were certain of the answers in the arts, the worse we are. 2. Bronwen Cohen of Children In Scotland observed that the idea of cultural entitlements could be very important for children, particularly those in most need, and urged everyone present to make a full input to the debate on the draft Culture Bill, and to engage fully in the debate on cultural entitlements. 3. James Irving asked about the role of television in Scottish culture, and suggested that very little of Scotlands cultural life is reflected on television. Paul Henderson Scott asked whether the panel agreed that two institutions in particular had done their best to suppress Scottish identity. One was the Scottish education system, with its systematic suppression and marginalisation of Scottish culture, language and history, only now beginning to improve a little; and the other was the BBC. Richard Holloway said that the Bill was out for consultation, and he hoped everyone would respond. On cultural entitlements, he was inclined to question whether the phrase had meaning, in the absence of any sanction on those who fail to deliver such entitlements. What sanction could possibly be applied? Good local authorities should educate, aid and evangelise for the arts, as the best already do, and Richard Holloway questions whether the entitlements idea really helps to encourage that. Vicky Featherstone said that she herself had worked in television for many years, and had finally left because she felt there was no vision left in television. In her view, television bosses are now fearful of failure, over-dependent on focus groups, and unwilling to take chances or to look beyond predictably successful programme formulas. Professor McCrone said he believed that talk of the suppression of Scottish culture and identity, which seemed to him to be surviving quite well, was just another form of the inferiorism he had been challenging. Scottish culture is what people in Scotland do. There is no right Scottish culture, and theres no point in slicing it up, reifying some parts of it and not others, and then lamenting its suppression. 4. Professor Tony Cohen, Principal of Queen Margaret University, said that he felt devolution owed at least as much to artists as to politicians, and that had been achieved without a cultural policy. He wondered whether there was a problem in the Executive feeling that it had to have a policy for every good thing that happens in Scotland. When we have a cultural policy, we may have to be very creative in order to disassemble it! Richard Holloway said that before devolution, the arms-length approach to arts funding undoubtedly had a longer arm. Now the arms length has got shorter. But he believes there is no real need for the Executive to breathe down the neck of Creative Scotland any more closely than before. Vicky Featherstone said that the important thing about the NTS was that the idea for it, and for its structure, had come from Scotlands theatre artists themselves. She firmly believes that artists make the culture. Managers - including Chief Executives like herself - have to manage the cultural policy, so that artists can be freed from it - in her view that is her job. Richard Holloway added that he believed we should think harder about the old principle of patronage of the arts. Today, we tend to talk about subsidy or investment, which tends to ignore the fact that there are ways in which the glory of Scottish cultural achievement just needs to be fertilised and bedded down and nurtured, including - say support for Scottish Opera, or the national heritage arts, as Holloway thinks of them. There should be a lack of grudge towards that process. Politicians notice successes like Black Watch, and want to be associated with them. Professor McCrone thought that arts policy should be an enabling thing. If politicians are prescriptive about the arts, youre almost dead in the water. Giving money to artists, on the other hand, is almost always a good thing. Culture, he added, should not be reified and insitutionalised through a series of political prescriptions.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows

5. In a final round-up of questions, Diana Murray of the Royal Commission on Historic and Ancient Monuments in Scotland pointed out that the draft Culture Bill also covered Scotlands national collections and the built heritage, including the work of the RCHAM. In view of the extent to which the discussion so far had been dominated by the performing arts, she wondered whether it was right that these areas should be lumped together. Pat Dishon, who works in tourism, pointed out that if the wider economic benefits of cultural activity are taken into account, the arts are hardly subsidy junkies. Lorraine Fannin of the Scottish Publishers Association wondered whether we dont focus too much on persuading politicians of the value of the arts, when in fact we should be persuading their ultimate paymasters, the voters. She referred to the Kidnapped project in Edinburgh, designed to promote public awareness of Edinburghs history and role as a City of Literature. Ann Packard of the Royal Society of Arts emphasised the importance of outreach work in the arts; she was shocked to find that if you visited more than one cultural event a year that made you a frequent attender in statistical terms, and felt a far higher proportion of the population should be enjoying the richness of Scotlands cultural life. Michael Atiyah, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, suggested that, as the founders of the RSE had been so well aware, culture also included the pursuit of science; the two subjects were complementary, and not so far apart as was often suggested. And Nazli Tabatabai Khatambakhsh, taking part by web cast and email, asked what would be done, under the new structures proposed in the Culture Bill, to further promote the association of Scottish artists with international partners. In response, Richard Holloway said that he was particularly pleased that Creative Scotland would include Scottish Screen, because of the way in which film culture combined arts, science and technology; and Vicky Featherstone commended the role of the British Council, which was now very active in Scotland, in promoting international links. Professor Jan McDonald, for the Council of the RSE, then offered the vote of thanks, congratulating Professor Schlesinger and all the speakers, and comparing the evenings proceedings with Sir David Lindsays great 16th century Scottish drama, the Satyre Of The Thrie Estaites, which, she said, had also included moral teaching, political and religious satire, music and poetry, as well as slapstick and stand-up comedy. She said that the multi-faceted spirit of that great drama clearly lived on, as did the presence of the common weal the wider public - as major players in the debate. She reflected on Scotlands history as a disputatious nation, and welcomed the fact that so many people wanted to engage in this debate, which had been particularly well attended. She observed that periods of high cultural activity mapped fairly neatly onto historic surges in nationalistic feeling, but that the affirmation of national identity in art usually preceded its political manifestation. She then gave a masterful summing-up of the contributions of the three speakers, and finished by invoking the new National Theatre of Scotland as an expression of quintessentially Scottish values in the arts, democratic in terms of geography, style and social reach, and above all non-monolithic, in its opposition to every kind of overcentralisation, and imposed uniformity. Joyce McMillan, 11.2.07

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows

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