Scotland’s Pompidou Problem

Texte1As 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.

Comments (29)

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  1. Mach1 says:

    The Pompidou centre was not without its critics, and the idea that central government spending on large projects can generate anything other than disaster is one of the memes of the neo-liberal era. A better comparison might be made with the Royal Festival Hall and the post-war vision of a cultural renaissance in Britain. Here in Scotland, our largest city cannot even sustain cultural successes such as Mayfest, though the robust good health of Celtic Connections makes up in part for its loss.
    Herein lies the issue for politicians who wish to use public spending to sustain and nourish cultural diversity. It is unlikely that any mainstream politician will advocate spending on a project such as a permanent home of the National Theatre of Scotland and a Scottish Film Studio. Both would be financially sound propositions which could also become focal points for training and development of new talent.
    Sadly the visionaries are often shunned. I read recently of Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture outside Euston Station in London falling into neglect because no one will admit ownership and liability for its upkeep. Spending on similar works of public art is thoroughly out of fashion, but the mindset which opposes such spending is also the one that warms itself in the heat from a pyre of books.

    1. Thanks Mach1 – I wasn’t so much concerned with the specifics of the Pompidou Centre but with the example of operating at that scale of ambition

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        The progress we have made on renewable energy is one of the fruits of that scale of social aspiration. We need to match that in areas like energy efficiency, district heating and decarbonising transport. I don’t see “big beast” personalities as being a necessary ingredient, to be honest, unless it is to be empowering and enabling. What is important is our collective ambition.

        1. Alf Baird says:

          “The progress we have made on renewable energy ”

          Aye, at the expense of the masses, and to the financial benefit of landowners.

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            My point is about the scale of the renewable generating capacity we have achieved in quite a short time. The point about needing to ensure that the benefits accrue to communities rather than financiers and large landowners is one I have made myself. It’s one of the reasons we need to crack on with land reform and community empowerment.

  2. Jim Archibald says:

    Help Crossing The Road

    One could grow old, waiting
    for age to force us to submission.
    Permission to break ranks, then?
    To say thanks, but no thanks
    to pipe and slippers,
    manual clippers to the nape,
    and heavy drapes to cut the draught.
    Daft you say, and may be right.
    But we won’t trundle into night.
    Nor stop to grace an easy-clean commode.
    But hit the road to greener grass,
    and pass beyond the gaze
    of hard-faced politicians who’d
    rudely wait to put us in their boxes.
    A pox upon these middling actuarians.
    Their piddling Lions and Old Rotarians.
    The sad belief that poor relief
    and pensions, all take their toll
    on never-ending dividends.
    It tends to make me swear,
    Old age. But worse, we curse
    the niggards and the witless,
    who fashion us as burdens,
    and rob us of potential.

  3. Dougie Blackwood says:

    There are many, many things that need to be done, to be changed or to be removed from our concerns. In 100 years we will either be frying and dying off , through global warming, or frozen due to our energy supply becoming too expensive to be used for space heating and cooling. The white hat brigade that tell us that we cannot do anything for one petty reason or another need to be taught realism. The 20:20 hindsight people that tell us what we should have done.

    We do need to free up the options to get people taking action to make things better for the future. We need to “Go Green” in energy, whether it is presently profitable or not, and we need to prevent the “It’ll be OK one day” answers to the pollution that we use to justify creating nuclear waste that will still be with us in several THOUSAND years time (think about it). The fear that people will not pay any more in taxes that is stultifying our public realm needs to be overcome. We, the baby boomers, are getting old, retiring and are a burden on the young but many of us are now relatively well off; we object to increased levels of income tax or local taxation while the young, the disabled and the poor cannot find a decently paid full time employment that will pay enough for them to be able to contribute to taxation.

    Yes we need to get something done to get away from the short term and self interested point scoring political free for all that we have now. How are we to get there?

  4. Crubag says:

    Isn’t the problem the desire for big ideas rather than small-scale improvements?

    Switzerland, the nation-state, is run out of Berne. A pleasant place, but you won’t stumble over many government buildings. Most of the work of government happens in the cantons.

    Edinburgh has had the Holyrood building – hugely over-budget, and now festooned with concrete mushrooms – and a tram network where the spur is now the main line – also hugely over-budget.

    We’ve had a slew of Lottery-funded Big Ideas that were mothballed or cut back.

    And we’re addicted to building out-of-town shopping experiences and then wondering why our high streets are dying, and what can be done about them?

    But if you like that kind of thing, we do have an in-town centre being built to replace the current St James Centre – “Not only will it provide much needed premium retail space for the city, it will also contain 250 new homes, 30 restaurants, a multi-screen cinema and a 5 star, world class hotel.” £850m price tag. The Pompidou Centre cost around £950m in today’s money.

    1. It’s a plea for ambition, not giantism, not the same thing. I’m sure the St James turd will be awful.

  5. DialMforMurdo says:

    I agree we need a collective of strong, apolitical independent minds to be open to all forms of radical change. I think this is better served as a means of thought, rather than the physicalities and funding of a shiny new building. Generally, the politician who gives the go ahead garners the hubris associated with buildings. I.e, they’re doing it for the attention and votes…

    I also get the Pompidou allegory, (I spent a lot of my early 20’s living in the library, where you could take out an album, headsets and a book to while away the hours of a dreich Paris winter), but would suggest that the Pompidou as a means of determined cultural expression is the exception.

    Take a look at Leopold Kohr’s seminal book ‘The Breakdown of Nations’. He has a paragraph on the power of cultural in small states versus the desire for aggressive Empire building by large states. Kohr was Austrian and harked back to the days of Austria’s city states, much like Italy, where art and understanding was more affordable than conquering hordes. He believed that England was at its finest culturally, when only as a small nation state of four million they produced Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Lodge et al prior to defeating the then European superpower Spain. Thereafter they became obsessed with size, Empire and military might. Ironically thereafter the finest ‘British’ writers were either Irish or Scots; Shaw, Swift, Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, Scott, RLS, Mackenzie, Smollett, Burns…

    “The first reason for the intense cultural productiveness found in little states lies thus in the fact that the absence of power will almost invariably turn rulers who might otherwise have become common arsonists and aggressors into patrons of learning and the arts. They cannot afford the maintenance of an army of soldiers, but the maintenance of a dozen artists is within the fiscal reach of even the poorest local prince. And since in a small-state world, every country is surrounded by multitudes of other small states, each artistic achievement in one will kindle in all the others the fierce flame of jealousy that cannot be quenched except by accomplishments which surpass those of all the neighbours. Since this, in turn, produces new jealousies, the process of creative production can never come to an end in a small-state system. To realize this we need only glance at Europe’s countless little cities. It is there, not in the great metropolitan additions in which some of them have been drowned, that we find the main part of our cultural heritage, since nearly every little city has at one time or other been the capital of a sovereign state. The overwhelming number, splendour, and wealth in ‘palaces, bridges, theatres, museums, cathedrals, universities, and libraries we do not owe to the magnanimity of great empire builders or world unifiers, who usually prided themselves on their ascetic modes of life, but to those ever-feuding rulers who wanted to turn their capital into another Athens or another Rome. And since each of them imposed the imprint of his particular personality on his creations, we find, instead of the giant dullness and uniformity of later colossalism, as many fascinating differences in architectural pattern and artistic styles as there were rulers and little states.

    1. Yeah, I’m not talking bout a shiny new building, I’m talking about the evident timidity in the face of multiple crisis – and of the very small pool of people who seem to have any clout in or out of govt.

  6. douglas clark says:

    Can I add a few words?

    It seems to me that certain endeavors last beyond political cycles. Sad bastard that I am, I am quite interested in astronomy and stuff like that. The development of ideas there have crossed centuries, cultures and even our planet. Perhaps, if you are being Copernican, especially our planet.

    This commitment to futuring (if that is a word – apparently it isn’t) research is a strand of humanity that drives us onward. Folk do things far beyond a political time-scale. They live and die, and their ideas are sorted through the evidence that they knew nothing of. Frankly it is the most amazing process that humans have come up with.

    Some survive, Darwin, Edwin Hubble and Einstein. Och! and Erwin Schrödinger. Others do not.

    What that process ought to teach us is that what we do get: understanding, vastly increased life-span, our actual intelligence, are not through short-term ism. They are through committing ourselves to long term objectives. But we spend our surplus on the military and somewhat self serving corporations that are interested in themselves and not others.

    I would propose, as many ‘get rich quick’ capitalists in their later lives have done, that capital (money) should pursue long term research if we ever want a better world for us all.

    Bankers, obviously, would hate this ‘cooling down’ of the honey trap.

    But I think it is the direction of travel we should be taking.

  7. john young says:

    All politics/politicians and their agendas have failed be they left/right/centre or middle of this there is no disputing,power corrupts and disengages even the best most moderate of leaders.We do not need politicians or their parties governing us here in Scotland we are only 5mil people with all the resources at hand but we allow ourselves year in year out to be led by proven failures that know nothing more than you or me about the world.We need to sweep the boards and look for good proven people prepared to look at things differently thinkers/innovators,if we don,t change the system then it can only get worse.

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      This is the nuclear option and it has some merit. Trouble is we end up with populists like Farage with really nasty agendas.

  8. Derek says:

    Once upon a day there was a large hole in the ground, just north of the Usher Hall. Edinburgh’s council looked and looked into the hole, and did nothing. Therefore the RSNO operates out of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Scottish Ballet operates out of the Tramway in Glasgow. Edinburgh has its Festival(s) and many venues, but that’s despite the council, not because of it.
    When we talk of Edinburgh council being bankrupt, it’s not just in financial terms. Look at the current furores over the ‘turd’ and also the future use of the old Royal High School on Calton Hill. Flash hotel or music school?
    Does this article in some way reflect back to earlier stories regarding who manages artistic endeavour in Scotland and their beholdenment to groups like Creative Scotland? The dead hand at the tiller?

    1. Thanks Derek, yes this is all connected imho

  9. david black says:

    To conflate over-priced big-ticket iconic architecture with political ambition has a downside. Mega-projects like the Holyrood building were all about hubris, political vanity, and incompetence. The only benefit arising was that it was the beginning of the end of the morally bankrupt Labour Feifdom. Just occasionally, as in Sydney, Bilbao, and Paris, a cultural symbol which engages directly with the public can work – more often than not, as with the Millennium Dome, it causes mayhem. Meanwhile we get commercial in-yer-face spin offs like the truly hideous Hotel La Dogpoop as proposed for Edinburgh’s St James Centre. The benefits, too, are often over-stated – virtually every contract associated with the new Forth Bridge has been disgracefully outsourced. For sure, we need big ideas – but more architectural vanity projects is not the answer. How about a big idea to phase out our need for food banks?

    1. Thanks David.

      “To conflate over-priced big-ticket iconic architecture with political ambition has a downside”, it does, but, as I stated in every reply that wasn’t what I was doing. “How about a big idea to phase out our need for food banks?” – I couldn’t agree more, unfortunately most of this is driven by the benefits system – something we don’t have control over yet.

  10. Alf Baird says:

    We will at some point in time have to face the fact that Scotland’s public institutions are mostly led by a privileged private school elite of generalists who are clueless and incompetent, irrespective of which talking heads are ostensibly ‘in power’, e.g. Trams, Holyrood, PFI shemes, Scotrail, Calmac, justice, economic ‘development (sic), housing etc etc – the list of disasters goes on and on and on and on……..

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      What is your evidence that the problems encountered with the Edinburgh trams, the construction of the Parliament at Holyrood or the Scottish ferries tendering process (for example) can be put down to the involvement of people with a private school background, Alf? That seems to me to be a red herring. There are certainly important issues to be explored around competence, capacity and the generalist, managerialist and anti-professional traditions of public administration in the United Kingdom. The people put in charge of the Edinburgh trams and the Parliament project clearly lacked the project management skills required. We do need to take a long, hard look at our administrative culture in Scotland. A radical reform of our approach to “community planning” (sic), which patently does only serve the interests of senior administrative elites in its current form, would be a very good place to start.

      1. Crubag says:

        I’d say professional cultures are probably more important than primary and secondary education in shaping decisions.

        That said, who you know and where you went to school can still be a factor in which professional culture you are able to join.

        1. Graeme Purves says:

          That is certainly true. Elites and networks of power and influence of various sorts operate in Scotland, as they do in every country, and they are more than capable of subverting public policy in their own interests. We need to have a good understanding of how they function and apply that knowledge in framing and implementing reforms.

  11. john young says:

    Graeme the evidence of failure from mainstream politics/politicians is there for all to see,we live in a totally fcuked up world,just the same old same old year in year out with no end in sight,talk about “turkeys voting for xmas”.get rid of them all get people in that have vision and the well being of all of our society/country.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Thanks for sharing your optimistic outlook on life, John. That’s some vision you are offering!

  12. Craig P says:

    One of the best ways – perhaps the only way – of shaking up the inertia of institutions is for bold leadership to take advantage of a good crisis.

    Wonder where we could find one of those…

  13. Graeme Purves says:

    This seems an appropriate place to share a study which found that complaining wires the brain for negativity: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/how-complaining-rewires-your-brain-for-negativity/article31893948/.

    Simply moaning that “we live in a totally fucked up world” is self-defeating because it is disempowering. Don’t passively blame others for the woes of the world. Find something positive you can do to make the world a better place, and get out there and do it!

    1. c rober says:

      Unfortunately the will and ability is removed from the sheeple via many mechanisms to have such “get out there and make change happen” attitudes.

      Its not just a tin foil hatter masterbatory paradise of MSM , big brother control , combined with jewish bankers and aliens as the causality you know….its straight forward apathy that change cannot happen.

      Negativity – cant be optimism so must be pessimism , and as they say when comparing the pessimist and optimist that only the pessimist is truly happy , if they are wrong they are happy , if they are right well usually the same .

      Increased worktime , lower income. Increased housing and heating costs , longer working hours.Reduced local employment , longer commutes. School runs through super school amalgamation , increased fuel costs . Well these are to name but a few mechanisms. The same mechanisms that led to Brexit , should in theory be the ones that lead to Indy.

      But in reality its just “Im too fecking tired , not enough time in the day” , and not enough income to appreciate the changes that could be made to QOL – ie in by fighting for change , even a tick in a box , can you only then remove the socioeconomic negatives in your life that causes the negativity in the first place.

      As a nation we are approaching economic breaking point , national debt being the greater indicator , an aging population heading towards the greater demographic , thus the cost involved being more than tax income receipts , and ironically were it not for cheap labour and immigration , the other main arguments for Brexit , enabling those jobs being filled to pay the taxes then we would already be there.

      We are sheep , we are slaves to the wealth creators and their media , even the civil service they control – but allow us to elect their proxies into controlling.

      Was it Mark Twain that said “voting made any difference they would simply ban it”. either he was looking back at American history and the founding fathers wealth , or to the future when billionaires are elected president , and multimillionaires elected senators. So either you have to be wealthy to get into politics , or it enables it.

      The wealthy prefer it that way , thats why the politicians are the same , only the names and party changes , centrist , poplulist , socialist , communist , Slab , Labour , Tory , Lib dem – Obviam novus princeps, idem vetus amet , but we do get fooled again.

      Sure it could be worse , we could be America – where from cradle to grave your an income source and foolishly are programmed to believe in its greatness is being prevented by external forces when its not. But even in the great Socialist Island of Britain , each of us as a median income person can see near 65 percent of our wages on taxes alone leave your pocket , this as the wealthy pay a smaller percentage , or as a corporation nearer zero as a precentage.

      Perhaps then this is a parable for the Election of the SNP by its electorate , in that it serves them to fail to deliver , as they implant more souls in the right jobs even after failure , widening the troughs through quangos and extensions of the civil service to the private contract sector instead.

  14. c rober says:

    So what do we do then , an upper chamber of what , with its members decided by whom?

    I get the link with the choosing of a makar , or poet laurete etc.

    But if this is minority elected positions above those elected by the population to represent them , elected by their peers and not the public , so would this be a good thing say for a lauerete for health , sport , education etc.

    I thought that was the point of cabinet posts and civil servants already?

    So essentially another trough?

    But as for policing the politicians , making sure our elected are doing the job and their depts , then perhaps this would be a good thing? After all they decided relatively recently to police themselves did they not?

    So say we have then an upper chamber as far removed from a house of lords as possible , to represent WHAT , and of what powers?

    Can a one person “specialist , consultant or whatever” say well ” I say no” thus block , when the main chamber decides on legislation in their area of “expertise” ? Sounds like a form of accountancy had a bastard child with a lawyer – appropriate given the experience of many of our elected.

    Now I am not saying such a thing is bad , well until implemented to be that way , but if we look to further our nation , over and above populist politicians keen on a next term election , whom can be the stumbling block – then whom has the power, the public or peer elected representative?

    Would a person in the position of a health czar , and it is looking that this is the kind of thing an upper chamber would be suggested as ,ie a cabal of czars ala Nulabour and Tory lite if your will , well would they be the best choice for overseeing of say the NHS.

    What if they arent accountants , they arent lawyers , and may be as far removed from the NHS as being 70 years old and a former dentist?

    So they would have to hire a department to run the data , or commision a private study , in order to report back to the elected house . Is this not what the civil servants should be doing in the first place, running the numbers? So would be yet more unnecessary jobs?

    Currently we have in legislative control of our country , the EU , Westminster , House of lords , Holyrood and poss 2nd chamber , Local authority – each with a civil service office , well thats just too many troughs for me = Jobs for the middling classes , another may just well be an insult.

    What we really need then is to cut out the middle (class) men , reduce the elected , not create more.

    By removing elected Councillors , post indy , and replacing them with people to do the job instead without watching the electoral clock , then we remove perhaps the short termism as well as the added costs?

    So in theory , yes for a 2nd chamber – but only if it is unelected , thus a civil service job which is continually under pressure to deliver , while policing the politicians and or their offices.

  15. Marcia Blaine says:

    I still weep over the total erosion of the arm’s length principle and lack of transparency that keeps everyone in the dark. Eg the shameful and underhand dealings surrounding the closure of Inverleith House.

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