Scotland’s Pompidou Problem
As Douglas Robertson’s recent article on fifty years of failed ‘renewal’ outlined, we’re frequently in thrall to under-ambition, short-termism and low aspiration. Things don’t get fixed, problems persist, and a lack of structural thinking and radical responses continue ad infinitum. In 1969, Georges Pompidou decided that a vacant site in Paris should be used for the construction of a multidisciplinary cultural centre. The decision brought together a brand new public reading library in the city centre, a new home for the museum of modern art, and the creation of a centre for new music. The building was designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, and major figures in modern art previously absent from the museum were brought into view, including René Magritte, Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, alongside the likes of Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein. It’s been a huge success. So far, so very Parisian. But where are Scotland’s Pompidous? Can anyone imagine a politician or senior figure with some clout managing anything like this sort of ambition? The last person to act with any real scale and ambition was probably Tom Johnston, responsible for nationalising the development of hydro-electric power across Scotland.
Where are the elders, senior figures who have a life of lived-experience able to take the long-view and make big bold informed contributions in their later years? We seem to be locked not just in a constitutional cryogenics, but also be frozen in a polity where a tiny (tiny) section of people contribute to policy making and ‘big thinking’. We need to stop just guddling along.
A host of senior people shuffled-off this mortal coil far too soon. But what place would there have been for Donald Dewar, Robin Cook or Charles Kennedy? Or, thinking beyond politics: Michael Marra, Ailsa McKay, Jock Stein or Ian Bell? Three elements combine to close-off our ability to give space to senior wisdom and the possibility of ‘long-thinking’. The innate conservatism of Scottish politics, combined with the stultifying institutions of the British State; a persistent cultural inability to value experience and older people against an obsession with youth; and a lack of any institutions to make space for people in emboldened later years. We need to create roles for people who know where power lies, how it operates, that are not seeking election, are fearless and don’t need to kiss anyone’s ass.
Some people will balk at the mention of Labour or Liberal politicians and hold out their fingers in crucifix style. But I’m not focused on their party allegiance here – I’m asking where do people with huge experience go? Some get sucked into the House of Lords, often just after they’ve just been rejected at the ballot box. Others get gongs thrown at them (already the bizarre clamours for Andy Murray to be ‘knighted’ are starting). At a British level co-optation takes the form of being smothered in ermine. In Scotland you’re more likely to be shunted out to run a toothless quango and be ground-down by the beige buffet circuit of conference-land.
Maybe we need a second chamber (that doesn’t replicate the unelected unreformed House of Lords) but gives space to non-tribalist people to develop big-thinking. Maybe we need to also create niche spaces for more radical thinking? The roles of Makar and Scriever were carved out of nowhere and are providing profile and articulacy to key cultural issues. Can we do the same in other spheres?
It’s true that constitutional, political and economic problems need to be tackled, and that will leverage big change. But sometimes it feels like Scottish institutions are dominated by a corroding sense of inertia. What does it tell us about our approach to housing and homelessness that it took a tiny charity to come up with the “homeless village’ concept? It’s institutional failure and an inability to innovate.
Who are the champions that are going to come up with big bold Pompidou answers to our health crisis?
Who are the champions that are going solve our obesity epidemic?
Where are the people who can solve our endless/institutionalised sporting failure?
Who are the champions that are going to help our rural communities?
Are we simply unable to reform Creative Scotland to make it less impenetrable and unaccountable?
Why do we allow the de-regulated housing market to exploit people?
There’s lot of areas where Scotland is excelling, but there are many where we have inter-generational failure at best, and we need new institutions and roles to change that. The system has inoculated itself against change. We need to find Scotland’s fearless Pompidous, and set them loose upon the massed forces of conservatism holding us back.