Lost in the long grass of Holyrood

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Artistic life in Scotland is being bled dry by cuts, disinterest and duplicity, says Michael Russell

Lloyd George once observed that "the finest eloquence is that which gets things done and the worst is that which delays them". By that judgment the speech on culture that our First Minister gave last St Andrew's Day - a speech seen as a serious statement of intent about culture in our national life and widely spun as being a fresh start - is now revealed as the worst type of eloquence.

Almost six months later it has led not to action but only to the announcement of yet another review: the third major review of culture since devolution. Meanwhile our whole artistic life is being bled dry by cuts, disinterest and duplicity.

One of the commonest - and most justified - complaints from teachers is the endless pressure to do new things. Constant half-baked ideas are thrust on them and the profession is expected to jump through hoops, despite an already overcrowded curriculum and incessant pressure on resources. Doctors and nurses say the same about the way in which their work is harassed and made more difficult.

Much of that problem arises from a desire by politicians to be seen to be doing something, or anything. Consequently most so-called reform is merely institutional tinkering rather than sustained, thoughtful progress designed to engage sustained, long-term support.

An equally effective way of disguising intellectual inaction is to pervert the laudable aim of seeking wide input and make of it only a means to kick difficult problems into the longest of long grass. Nowhere is this now more obvious than in the area of culture.

Yet, paradoxically, some of those who were most vocal and active in seeking the establishment of a Scottish Parliament were those from the cultural sector. Now they have been sidelined once again: no wonder they are so alienated from what was meant to be a new, effective, way of doing things.

I have long argued for a "baseline review" of exactly what cultural activities we should regard as national priorities. However, such a review has to start from the premise that the arts are underfunded. It also has to be quick, determined and led by clear thinking. For example, the Government needs to declare a position on arm's length funding of the national companies: platitudes are not enough. It also has to rule nothing in or out.

The new cultural commission, however, does the opposite. Dressed up in so much woolly thinking that it could provide a month's work for an army of Australian sheep shearers, the remit still harks back to the national cultural strategy, itself drawn up after a period of consultation and review by the great and the good.

Virtually universally regarded as a failure, it must still be taken into consideration in this further period of discussion. The chair of the review is also the chair of the Scottish Arts Council, so his sheet of mental paper is likely to be far from clear in terms of priorities.

The time-scale is disastrously long. A year's work seems short enough, but the fine print indicates that any legislation arising out of the commission's work (and there has not been a single piece of cultural legislation introduced by this Executive so far in either Parliament) will not be considered until 2007 - an election year.

So in reality, it will be 2008 before anything comes into effect - another four years. This schedule also neatly misses the key dates in the Scottish Executive's three-yearly spending round, thus ensuring that new resources are not an issue for the foreseeable future. In fact, both the minister and his commission chair are already talking in the coded, but depressing, language of "better use of existing resources". That means cuts.

This is not only bad news for artists - without whom there is no cultural life, let us remember - but bad news for education. Cultural co-ordinators are now in post but they may be as passe as arts ministers (we are on our fourth) by the time the review bears fruit. The scheme to provide free music tuition for one year of primary (another half-baked, gesture politics, solution to a real problem) will not be built on or even secured during the same period.

Some will say that this is all a fuss about nothing. Culture isn't a matter of life or death, nor does it substitute for teaching the basics in education. Hopefully there are many - including teachers - who will disagree and who will argue that a vigorous cultural life is essential for the well-being not just of present pupils, but of our society as a whole.

Too much of life is now about the body. There needs to be, even if one has no religious perspective, a balancing attention to the needs of the soul. To put it less poetically, a country without a strong sense of creativity and a strong desire to express itself is a country that is going nowhere.

I have spent much of my career, and even more of my personal life, deeply involved in the arts in Scotland. I have seen the liberating effect of in-volvement in creativity and how that effect works with almost everyone. I have argued loud and long for a nation that respects its artists and rejoices in their achievement, and which puts them and their work firmly among our national priorities.

I have scarcely been so depressed at the prospects that lie ahead for that type of ambition. The paralysis of consultation, unfortunately, is not a drug that quiets the conscience or the anger of those who see our country being dumbed down and our culture being treated with derision by those whose job it is to celebrate and nurture it.

If this is the new Scotland, then it is as bad as the old one.

Michael Russell is a writer and broadcaster.

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