By Richard Lewis
We heard a lot of talk during the referendum campaign that somehow the artistic well being of this country would be under threat from independence. Indeed, the phrase used in one article (Alan Massie writing in the Scotsman) article was that independence ‘could rebound on artists, musicians and writers in a new country.’
Frightening stuff – but what did it actually mean?
Though Convener of Culture at City of Edinburgh council by day, I’m also a part-time lecturer at the RCS in Glasgow and have long been used to the fact that 90% of my students graduate and leave Scotland – indeed, it was also the case for myself. For years opportunities to work in the arts have only existed on a small scale in this country and emigration (for at least a period of time) has always been seen as inevitable. But does this have to be the case?
Allan Massie went on to say ‘all the instruments of public policy with regard to the support and financing of the arts are in the hands of the devolved Scottish Government’. This is patently not the case. It is important to remember that broadcasting represents the largest single amount spent on artistic endeavour in Scotland – employing actors, writers, designers, musicians, make up artists, technicians etc. The amount we spend on the arts in terms of our national companies is dwarfed by what the BBC spends – but this is an area, under devolution, over which Scotland has NO control.
Now earlier this year year we did a debate on broadcasting at Edinburgh City chambers in which we heard about the loss to the capital of 5 departments and approximately 100 personal since the closure of the BBC studio in Queens St.
It can hardly be overstated what the effect was in losing this major resource to the city. Can you think of any capital city in the world where, after an overwhelming vote for setting up its own parliament in 1997, the national broadcaster takes the decision to massively reduce the service on offer to the capital? From a a 150 staff base in Queen st we now have 30 odd working at the Tun (near Holyrood) and a large tent which sits on Bristo Square for the three weeks of the Festival – hardly the stuff artistic dreams are made of. And if the argument was that it was all done in order to prioritise the major investment in Glasgow at Pacific Quay that might have been some sort of consolation – the reality is, however, that the BBC is reducing even the level of funding to its Scottish headquarters in Glasgow.
Let us be clear – if the £300million raised per year by the BBC licence fee in Scotland were spent in Scotland the arts scene would be transformed. At present about a half of that sum is currently spent here and that will decline to a third (just £96 million) next year. Now to those on the NO side who (bizarrely) claimed that by sending the bulk of our monies south means we were sharing in the ‘wider BBC product’ – which seems to me a bit like arguing that purchasing a ticket for a summer blockbuster is somehow having a ‘stake’ in Hollywood – the reality is that investing this money here would give Scotland a great chance of becoming a good size broadcasting hub in itself, attracting further investment (including perhaps the Internatinal Film studio often talked about) and crucially encouraging more creatives to relocate to Scotland
Having worked at Danish broadcasting over a number of years I know just how substantial their offering is – across television, radio, recording, and new commissioning – and the resulting flood of programmes from Scandinavia (the so called ‘Nordic Noir’) is just one manifestation of this. The argument that ‘Brigadoon-esque’ programming would dominate any future SBC output is simply insulting – no one would suggest that the setting up of Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and the NTS has resulted in anything other than top quality product in the performing arts, so exactly why should the future of a Scottish broadcasting post-independence be any different?
Finally, I am not suggesting for a moment that Scotland should attempt to ‘compete’ with London – our population is too small and aspects of the London scene – particularly it’s commercial West End – are only matched internationally by New York. But what Home Rule can bring about is a more strategic look across the whole Arts sector (crucially including Broadcasting) enabling Scotland to undergo the sort of transformation that the mere ‘devolution’ of certain services could never bring about. We can (and in my view) should aspire to becoming an artistic hub on the same level as Copenhagen. And for 12 months of the year, rather than just for the three weeks of our summer festivals.
Let’s all hope Lord Smith seizes this opportunity, takes seriously the case for repatriation of broadcasting powers and helps bring about the change in the sector which both Scotland and it’s artists so urgently require.