2007 - 2022

A New Cultural Energy

All this week we’re publishing articles by English people who support a Yes vote in September. Matthew Houlihan kicks off our English for Yes series by exploring how independence could unlock a new cultural energy.

I’ll be completely honest, I live in London. My dad was from Edinburgh. But my time in London really informs my argument on Independence. The neo-liberal Westminster consensus seems impervious to change. Which is why the trend for de-centralisation, as in the explicitly progressive campaign for Scottish Independence, to take power back from these unaccountable elites, is so popular, and so necessary.

I have lived and worked here in London for many years. Ive been an actor professionally working in the south of England for 8 years now.  Ive noticed the decline in the arts here, a profitable industry by all accounts, simply because, with austerity, choices are made in Westminster which are ideological and are not dependent on economics.

Art is not a commodity. Among other things, it is food for the soul and an expression of the common conscience. However, since Thatcher, it’s been viewed as an indulgence, a very Victorian concept.  Cameron and the Tories enable this concept when they cut public funding.  The London-centric UK arts have therefore become infiltrated with an ideology of profit and private patronage.  Oddly, despite the economic arguments for a strong arts industry which punches above its weight in terms of producing more than is invested, the British Film Council was cut.  BBC3, the most interesting and creative aspect of BBC arts, was cut. Cuts continue.

Also, crucially, the rents of London theatres and even fringe theatres have risen and risen amid the huge property bubble which has blighted the lives of many Londoners and set the scene for a future UK economic crash.

Small companies cannot now even afford to put on shows where before they merely settled for not paying artists under the myth of ‘profit share’, when profits essentially went to the theatre owners and the landlords.  An excellent company I have recently been involved in has closed for this very reason; who can afford to pay £2000 a week for a fringe play?

 The UK arts trend is one of fewer voices able to get a platform and the private monopolisation of ownership of these artistic platforms, leading inevitably to a US style wealthy patron system of artistic expression, with very little popular debate in theatre dependent on the taste of the highest income bracket. This alongside an official BBC version of reality, with atrociously low quality sitcoms and programs which increasingly only employ big names and which avoid any accurate debate about what most people feel and think reflected in their programming, instead patronisingly appealing to the lowest common denominator for ratings.

The West End of London exhibits an awful list of tired old musicals and film remakes packaged for tourists and with the profit as its bottom line.  Producers have largely become money men utterly divorced from artistic merit.  Billionaire producer Cameron Mackintosh, who owns vast swathes of London’s theatres, said in 2010 he never goes to the theatre. 

Famous actors have also recently been condemning the trend of the squeezing out of working class kids from artistic training simply because they are priced out of education.  A regression from the freedom people were enabled in the 1960’s.

Fees and the ability to do free performance after free performance in the hope of being actually employed (an experience I’m very familiar with and which is a trend of neo-liberal labour markets called ‘precariousness’) can only ensure those born into money can stay the course while those without funds cannot sustain themselves.

So what is to be done?  It makes me want to scream.  And it makes me, like many of my artist friends, start to look elsewhere for a healthy arts scene, where interesting and challenging ideas are explored and where employment is more secure.

Independent Scotland is such a place.  Short of a major political shift in Westminster which looks unlikely, I suspect a potential exodus of artists from London in the event of an Independence vote.  Already the SNP arts minister has described the possible flourishing of a new Scottish film and TV industry, not to mention the already established Edinburgh theatre infrastructure.  The Holyrood government has suggested a big budget for this new venture and it excites me.  It has the potential to be the most exciting English language arts scene of the early 21st century. That should excite us.  All us artists.  For it allows us a window for expression free of monopoly such as our generations have not seen.

It can provide a beacon to the world.  And a flame which demonstrates very articulately how cultural and political alternatives to the neo-liberal model of government CAN work.  

Scotland has a rich heritage of artistic and comic creativity given a small budget.  Imagine what we can do with the proper infrastructure and energy!

I am certain that independence will not only benefit Scotland’s community but will help England re-define its politics too.  And Wales.  And Catalonia.  Westminster currently represents central power impervious to change. We need to take that power back, into our communities, where it rightly belongs.  THAT is democracy.

I urge you to be brave, be a builder of a society, rather than simply react to and complain about the old one.  Be a pioneer as the people of old who had to risk everything for a new society and whom we have been taught to remember in awe.  Be a pioneer of a new Scotland. 

I am optimistic.  Those who are uncertain really do need to stand aside.  Their choice to procrastinate serves the status quo and regressive decline.  Allow those with vision to put it into practice.  This is the way progress has and will be made.

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  1. JimnArlene says:

    A fresh new perspective on the debate, interesting.

  2. Interesting insight on the impact of neo-liberal centralised government on the arts scene. I’m not surprised that the impact on arts reflects the impact on every other area of the social economic and political landscape.

    We absolutely need to increase and strengthen local democracy by placing control over local economies and decision making on as many aspects of life as possible. While there is a need for a strong national perspective on art as with many other aspects of life, the local aspect must have a similar importance.

    This does raise the question of how local is defined and how big or small the most local unit can be to provide strong representative, responsive and accountable democracy of course.

  3. Leigh says:

    Matthew – clearly you’re aware that arts & culture are fully ‘devolved’ in Scotland (with the Lottery anomaly retaining influence) hence the ‘stooshie’ surrounding the imposition of a ‘Creative Industries’ development agency, Creative Scotland, with new powers and expanded rentier remit, and the axing of the previous arts bodies and purposes.

    The very formation of Creative Scotland is a symbol of how ideologically committed *all* the mainstream political parties in Scotland are to the EU economic functionalisation of culture: strengthening competitiveness, testing new business and management models, implementing communication and branding strategies.

    This new institutional arrangement both embodied and implemented the restructuring and cuts that were ongoing throughout this extended process – a point which the consultant Anne Bonnar made previously for those trying to make an erroneous distinction between England and Scotland. And is something which itself highlights the invisibility of critical analysis as regards cultural policy in Scotland.

    Noise in the press is likely to kick off again at this politically sensitive time (in the run-up to the referendum) with the next ‘highly competitive’ round of Creative Scotland funding taking place over the Summer – ie more cuts under restructuring. You’ll also be aware that, as in England, some Local Authorities in Scotland have also cut funding to the arts altogether, blaming the Council Tax freeze and increasing ScotGov centralisation. So much for the democratic principle of decentralisation and subsidiarity at a national level necessary to maintain a lively political culture.

    As for Miller vs Hyslop’s response, and attention to how the retort was framed rather than its actual content, what’s striking are the similarities given the intention was to differentiate government approaches:

    MM: “…my belief that culture is at the very heart of what it means to be human. Culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.”
    FH: “Culture and heritage are fundamental to our quality of life. A vibrant heritage is central in shaping our sense of place and making our communities attractive places to live, work, invest and visit. Culture and heritage are a powerful force for renewal and regeneration.”

    MM: “Arts and culture underpin what it means to be British; how we see ourselves; and how the world sees us. Our culture is our hallmark, and it makes the UK distinctive in a globalised world.”
    FH: “there’s a sense of place and of ownership that is both common and individual and which is distinct to Scotland. […] In an independent Scotland we would see increasing opportunities to build our national and international reputation for our culture, our heritage, our skills and our traditions. We want Scotland to be a country that is increasingly recognised for its modern, creative and innovative industries. We want Scotland to be recognised as a creative nation that enriches our lives, enhances our learning and strengthens both our society and our economy.

    MM: “The arts stimulate us, educate us, challenge and amuse us. They are of instrumental, as well as intrinsic, value and their social benefits are numerous and beyond doubt.”
    FH: “The culture and heritage sectors make an invaluable contribution to our economic life […] we value culture and heritage precisely because they are so much more, because they are our heart, our soul, our essence.”

    MM: “With that in mind, today I want to argue that culture does not simply have a role to play in bringing about a return to growth … Rather, it should be central to these efforts.”
    FH: “We want to see cultural and creative industries making a growing contribution to employment and economic output, sitting also at the heart of regeneration, renewal and change. The Government’s Economic Strategy identified seven growth sectors as being those holding the greatest potential for growth and internationalisation. The creative industries form one of those sectors, recognising both their direct contribution to the economy and the way in which skills such as design and delivering content digitally are becoming vital to other sectors such as manufacturing as well.”

    Claims to good intentions by politicians (with the ability to dissemble and mislead) really don’t count for much when the situation continues to deteriorate – not least with regard to a shared, underpinning nationally ‘competitive’ ideology. Whatever the minister might say, the principal “Key responsibility” of ScotGov’s Culture and Heritage Directorate is: “To promote and develop the contribution of culture, heritage and creativity to sustainable economic growth and to improving the health, wellbeing and quality of life of our communities” (accessed 19/5/14).

    What is perhaps unique in Europe, though, is that Scotland has the faddish ideology of ‘creative industries’ actually entrenched in legislation (by cross-party agreement) and so these issues aren’t simply contestable at the level of the policy of the government of the day, except for some post-political tinkering with technocratic ‘governance’ – the more superficial yet not altogether insignificant network politics of personality, leadership, and managerial competency.

    All of which raises the question of why “a new cultural energy”? – how is it “new” or really that different to anything else in Europe, and under what political conditions? Alongside the ‘culturalisation of economy and economisation of culture’ is there a concomitant culturalisation of politics?

    PS BellaC – I’m at a loss as to what or who an ‘English person’ is, and to what extent this label applies to me. This is not a UK equivalent to blindness of white privilege. So is it people who mostly reside in England, regardless of past or present mobility and experiences? Is it people who culturally – yet across intersectional differences/ experiences – have formatively grown up in England, something also distinctive over geography and time? Or is it a necessary constructed opposite to some totalised ‘Scottish person’?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Leigh, I suppose ‘an English person’ is someone who self defines as such. It could be English people living in Scotland or just who have a view, wherever they are. I don’t really care. It’s not a constructed opposite it’s just – you know – ‘an invitation’ to take part. We’ve had a really good response from people. I suppose what we wanted to do was avoid the

      You could join in (intersectionally?)

    2. rabthecab says:

      An English person is very much like any other person who see themselves as their own particular nationality. For example, I personally have lived in London for most of my adult life; however I was born in Glasgow of Scottish parents and consider myself Scottish, and always will.

      Similarly, there are doubtless many people now living in Scotland who were born in England (and elsewhere,) who consider their place of birth as defining their nationality, no matter where that was, or where they now reside.

      Of course there will also be people who were born in Scotland, but whose parents are “English” and would consider themselves to be English. It’s all about self-definition, nothing sinister, or even slightly racist, about it.

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