by Kevin Williamson
Scotland has a long and justifiably proud history of cultural exchange with creative artists from every corner of the globe. Film festivals, writers festivals, music festivals and big international festivals like the annual August jamboree in Edinburgh have all worked their socks off to bring the best of international culture and international artists to our shores.
Our homegrown artists have done likewise in the opposite direction. Ask any creative artist in any artistic discipline and they’ll tell you one of the best parts of participating in the arts is meeting and working with people from elsewhere, learning about different cultures. The cross-pollination of ideas benefits everyone.
It would be a strange sort of artist who only wanted to suck at their mother country’s teat. Over the years I’ve been fortunate in helping move culture in both directions. When I edited the Rebel Inc imprint of Canongate Books we published novels by Norwegian, Moroccan, Persian, American, Italian and Spanish authors alongside Scottish writers. This was a nice balance that any outward-facing publishing operation could strive for. The only football book we published was written by a Geordie about English football fans adventures in the 2000 Euro Championships! Rebel Inc could be called many things but narrow-minded Scottish parochialism wasn’t one of them.
More recently – with Neu! Reekie! – Michael Pederson and myself have brought a steady flow of Irish, English, Northern Irish and American poets to our monthly Edinburgh events and we’ve tried to introduce our audiences to the great artists of world animation. Our plans for 2013 include bringing over poets from much further afield. This is simply following in a well-trodden path that festivals such as Stanza and the Edinburgh International Book Festival do so fantastically on a much bigger scale.
Not everyone involved in the arts is necessarily a writer, musician or artist. There are technicians, facilitators, enablers and organisers at every level contributing a variety of skills to develop, improve and promote our many cultures. Many of these folk often come from far beyond the shores of Scotland and have acquired new skills and different ways of doing things in their travels.
How could it be otherwise in a healthy creative environment? Perhaps it should be compulsory for every major arts organisation here to include at least one person from outside Scotland on their boards. in addition to what they would bring to the table it could help keep things from sliding towards the parochial.
I should state that this has nothing to do with the current political debate on Scottish Independence. These are simple ABCs of cultural cross-pollination which I doubt if anyone on either side of the Indy divide would disagree with. These are the ways a healthy grassroots culture flourishes.
But what of the management boards of Scotland’s large cultural institutions? Do the same rules apply there? Most sensible folk would agree it would be patently absurd, and discriminatory too, if Scottish arts organisations adopted a ‘Scots only” rule for administrators. To my knowledge, thankfully, no one has ever voiced such an opinion.
Yet despite this a number of high profile artists and thinkers have raised questions (lost in the crossfire) over the lack of Scots involved in running our cultural institutions.
In his now famous essay in the UNSTATED anthology Alasdair Gray wrote:
“By the 1970s the long list of Scots doing well in the south was over balanced by English with the highest positions in Scottish electricity, water supply, property development, universities, local civil services and art galleries.”
This line of reasoning sparked a furious reaction when he named individuals from the present. Yet Gray was articulating a concern which has privately vexed many others, most of whom were too afraid to say so out loud for fear of being pounced on as anti-English by a Scottish media which is uniformly London-centric in its political and cultural outlook.
Gray’s concerns are not new. In 1988 the broadcaster George Rosie made a programme for STV which examined similar claims. This is what he said about the making of the programme:
“Les Wilson of Scottish Television and I spent a few weeks making a television programme which went out under the title of ‘The Englishing of Scotland’ – a title which, incidentally, was conjured up by Controller of Programmes Gus Macdonald. When the idea of trying to get some idea of how much of Scotland was being run by non-Scots was first mooted I was a shade reluctant. It seemed a vaguely unpleasant thing to do. Not quite racist, but perhaps open to charges of cultural paranoia. Ammunition which could be used against a useful minority. That kind of misgiving.
But then when I started doing the research I moved rapidly from being reluctant, to being fascinated, then amazed, then appalled. Because it seemed that almost every institution into which I was peering universities, scientific research institutions, charities, colleges, theatre managements, art galleries, new towns, municipal bodies, health boards etc – was being run by people who were born, brought up and educated furth of Scotland. My misgivings disappeared. This was clearly a syndrome which was widespread, growing fast, and needed to be looked into.
I also realised that this was an issue which went straight to the heart of Scotland’s ambivalent constitutional position. The essence of what the writer Ian Jack called Scotland’s role as “a nearly country’. On the one hand it seemed absurd – churlish even – to complain about one’s fellow Britons taking jobs and buying land and property in their own country. But on the other hand it seemed equally absurd that so many important Scottish institutions should be run by non-Scots, by people brought up in a different education and culture.”
In the noise and fury that followed the SoS article many people including myself are wondering to what extent, if any, these claims can be quantified. Two questions are hanging around like scowling unwanted guests at a happy clappy love-in.
1) Is it really true that Scots are marginalised, overlooked, or even discriminated against in the running of their own country’s institutions?
2) If this proves to be true, then how the hell has this state of affairs come about?
Anecdotal evidence has been bandied about but there isn’t enough raw data to analyse. On Twitter I raised the idea of a “social audit” of Scotland’s institutions to ascertain if it was the case. But to broaden it out socially into looking at the class and gender composition of the heads and boards of our public institutions, which are often shadowy quangos. Like many others I want to know who these people are and who put them there.
No sooner had I raised this than the Twitteratti started screaming like banshees. With hindsight they had a point. “Social audit” does sound a bit fascistic. In the current toxic atmosphere if you choose the wrong word it’s like feeding time at Edinburgh Zoo for the slavering hounds of the Unionist media. (I’ve since deleted the Tweet and withdrawn the dodgy-sounding phrase).
Poor choice of words aside, the questions do warrant further investigation. Some sort of survey of Scottish institutions – both cultural and other public bodies – would help, to try and gauge whether Scots are under-represented, and whether these institutions reflect a narrow gender or social bandwidth.
We can take it as read that unlike STV in 1988 the Unionist media of today will never bother their backsides to investigate anything that might touch a raw Scottish nerve. But until a comprehensive (factual rather than judgemental) survey is done claim and counter-claim will bounce around and an underlying resentment will fester on.