by George Gunn
The current and on-going spats between Scottish film producers and Creative Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government over budgets, training and a film studio and the ding-dong between singer and ex-army officer James Blunt and shadow UK Culture Secretary Chris Bryant about the “politics of envy” and how the privileged sons and daughters of the well-off can afford to work in the arts because they can cash-flow risks and develop their careers by working for nothing or peanuts, has brought out the best and the worst in what passes for everyday reality in the cultural world.
In The National, on the day after Burn’s Night, Andrew Learmonth had a perceptive piece in which he quoted research by Dr Ealasaid Munro from the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow which showed that “working class children in Scotland might not even have the opportunity to imagine the possibility of working in the arts.” Little chance then of a contemporary Burns, that “heaven taught ploughman”, breaking into the creative writing circuit at any university any time soon. Dr Munro also stated that “In people educated to a degree level or above 92% of those people engaged in culture over the previous year, but only 45% of people with no qualifications participated. That’s a pretty big gap.”
That “pretty big gap” represents a society which still has terrible class and economically driven disadvantages holding it back. According to the Scottish Household Survey of 2014 61% of people from Scotland’s most deprived areas had attended a cultural event, compared to 85% from the country’s least deprived areas. Whatever the Scottish Government or COSLA might say about the various cultural initiatives they are sponsoring and about “Creative Learning and Equalities and Diversity” what is apparent that in cultural provision, either participating in or attending arts events, the lower 20% of society are, according to Dr Munro, out of reach. Burns, the working class hero, can continue to address the haggis of life – but nowadays not as a career.
The actor Brian Cox, himself the product of a working class Dundee upbringing, has previously stated that his profession lacked social mobility and was cutting itself off from the working classes. Chris Bryant has asked the question: where are the Albert Finneys and Glenda Jacksons of today? In Scotland it would be safe to assume they are not currently training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow because even with the payment of tuition fees hardly any aspiring Scottish actor – without serious financial prime-pumping by parents – can afford to enrol. This is true, in my experience, of Scottish universities in general. To be successful now Burns would have to turn himself into a haggis in order to address the lack of humanity in this wasteful and culturally destructive process.
James Blunt, ( or James Hillier Blount to give him his Sunday name) was not impressed, it was fair to say, to be reminded that by going to Harrow he was part of an elite 7% of British society and that, as a result, he had a head start on, for example, a singer-songwriter from Wester Hailes. Not that Chris Bryant, himself an ex-public schoolboy and Oxford graduate, necessarily had Wester Hailes in his mind when he cited James Blunt as an example of arts career privilege. In his reply to the Right Honourable Member for Rhondda Mr Blunt was less comradely than he could have been, suggesting to Mr Bryant that “it is your populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap”.
It was the reference to envy which intrigued me. Vicky Allen in her Sunday Herald column wished “that the phrase ‘politics of envy’ could be wiped from the language. Its endless repetition amounts to a kind of cultural brainwashing of the 99% by the 1%.” How James Blunt feels about being elevated from 7% to the very top 1% is unknown to me. I suspect, like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson he’ll be “comfortable” with it. I could be wrong. He has done good work for Mèdicines Sans Frontières for example, so nothing is straight forward.
My experience of the “politics of envy” came in 1984, at the height of the Miners Strike when Chapman magazine published a poem of mine called “The Queen Mother Drives Through Dunnet 1968”. In the poem I tried to express the feelings of fear, anger and injustice which were the common currency of most working class people at that time as they witnessed the militarisation of the police in order to break a strike through state violence and the suspension of almost every civil right in order to wage class war on ordinary people trying to defend their communities. All that coupled with my own reading of the history of my own people in the north Highlands in the 18th and 19th century, a history of dispossession and exile which is still not properly taught in our schools – coming together (in a lyric poem!) to focus on one member of the Royal family who happened to own the Castle of Mey, a few miles from my old primary school from which we were extracted and handed Union Jacks to wave every time she passed in her Rolls.
Joy Hendry, the editor of Chapman, was delighted with the poem and even more delighted when a reader wrote to the magazine cancelling their subscription suggesting, amongst other things, that I was “envious” of the Queen Mother. Truly now the haggis was forced to address the human. Joy Hendry was so “delighted” in fact she stuck the letter on her fridge door where it stayed for longer than was healthy. But then Joy is a brave woman.
This idea that those of us from the lower orders who criticise our betters do so from a position which is “envy-based” is a common charge and one that raises its fur-coated form regularly when the issue of land ownership is discussed in public. In the past the campaign to get shooting estates to grant the public access or to pay non-domestic rates now often gives rise from landowners jibes that land reformers are just “jealous” or “envious” of “an accident of birth” or “for wealth hard won” or some other rot. I wonder how many times Andy Wightman has been told he is merely “jealous” of the Duke of Buccleuch?
What I am truly envious of is those countries where class, deprivation and the denial of opportunities are not an issue. In 1926 the Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness wrote that “Culture is first and foremost built on the defeat of poverty and powerlessness. The increased education of the public is the only guarantee of democracy. Books are your university, people of Iceland!” Anyone who is lucky to have been to Iceland recently would have noticed that there is a small country which invests in its creative community because it knows that culture and the arts is a major driver of the economy and a real and substantial part of the national journey out of financial collapse and recession. Halldór Laxness knew eighty nine years ago that education, culture, poverty and powerlessness are all related. That in Scotland we cannot link them in order to liberate ourselves is part of our own on-going tragedy. The fact that the British State continues to embrace fascism through increasing police numbers and “anti-terrorist” laws while at the same time trying to supress trades unions and doing away with the right to strike, while we in Scotland remain powerless to do anything about it, is another part of that tragedy.
Tragedians, ironically, are optimistic: they are optimistic about the possibilities of human life if nothing else. To be a film producer in Scotland you have to be optimistic beyond the call of reason. It would seem reasonable, and financially prudent, would it not, for Scottish Enterprise, Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government to work out between them if they want a film industry in Scotland or not? Traditionally politicians’ attitude to the arts – and culture in general – is a cross between outright hostility, ignorant philistinism, ambivalence, amateurism and the opportunism of the dilettante. All of them will happily step into the bright spotlight of artistic success and let a little of the stardust sprinkle onto them in the hope of… well, who knows exactly? Could be tourism? Could be profile? Could be exports (of haggis)? Could be those “populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap” as so delicately expressed by James Blunt.
Wherever the fallout from this failure of engagement finally settles one of the most serious effects, besides the lack of actually making many (or any) films, will be the lack of technical training necessary to sustain a film industry in the first place. Like shipbuilding if film making in Scotland loses the trades and skills required to produce feature length films then it will be extremely difficult, if almost impossible, to re-invent them. This lack of investment and foresight cannot be compensated for by Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government focusing on the country – and the Highlands in particular – as a mere film location: our country aspires to be more than a film set. Scotland’s reality is its people, or it is nothing else.
The North Highland College of the University of the Highlands and Islands is about to set up a degree course in “Film and Television Production” in which the idea is to train local young people (and others) in the technical requirements of film and television so that they can produce films and television programmes – even in a guerrilla manner – locally so that we in the Far North can export that “local” and make it “national and international”. We see no reason why our stories cannot have a world-wide audience. This is a small manifestation of the optimism of the possibilities of human life. Time will tell if it is allowed to work. It could be that a modest degree course could change everything?
If the cultural managers and gate-keepers in Scotland want to make a haggis out of the nation’s cultural provision, participation and training in the arts, then they need do nothing more than keep on keeping on doing what they are doing, which in reality is nothing. That nothing will kill off the film industry in this country. The theatre and literature and everything else will follow it. Who then will be left to address the human and defeat poverty and powerlessness?
© George Gunn 2015