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Essay: Scotland says No to quangos, consultants and dodgy MBAs

A modest proposal for the new Edinburgh parliament: fund the arts democratically. By Angus Calder
Watching Channel 4's attempt last week to settle on the names of the 100 most powerful people in the New Scotland, one waited for the moment when someone uttered the P-word. It turned out to be Jim Sillars, a robust street-fighting politico not often sighted at arts events, who rather shyly invoked "the poets" as the unacknowledged legislators of Scotland's consciousness. And as it emerged around the same time that Ted Hughes had left pounds 1.4m, one reflected wryly that the recently-dead masters whom Sillars surely had in mind - Norman MacCaig and Sorley Maclean, George Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith - for all their prizes and honours attained no more than a middling sufficiency. Furthermore, most of their books came out from English publishers.

It is clearly true that the surge of patriotic optimism which regained Scotland a parliament after nearly 300 years was powered by recent cultural self-assertiveness. The Edinburgh Festival was created in 1947 in a country where music and theatre were stunted and provincial, where Scottish history and literature were subjects barely taught at all. But now, the world's biggest arts festival seems aptly sited in a country teeming with creativity. The best-known effigy of Scotland overseas must today be that of Ewan McGregor in the film of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Sean Connery is helping to fund a new film-making centre in Edinburgh, while the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi has in effect given a new gallery of Dada and Surrealist art to the city, adorned by many of his own works. MSPs elected next month might just be in danger of assuming that the arts are doing fine in Scotland, and will earn the country prestige and money without much further input from taxpayers.

The arts have not featured at all so far as an issue between the parties contesting the current Scottish elections. Yet the Holyrood parliament cannot long defer debating their parlous state. Scottish Ballet has just failed in its quest for a director of high international standing. Over three decades of uneven achievement, Scottish Opera has barely survived horrific financial debacles. Scotland's main theatres stagger from crisis to crisis. Excellent, internationally rated Scottish writers may just, with luck, achieve incomes equivalent to those of junior publishers south of the Border.

So it might seem to under-informed MSPs that the Scottish Arts Council, for some years separate from the London Arts Council and now clearly subject to policy decisions by the Holyrood Parliament, has been wise to commit itself to spending pounds 2.2m over three years on audience research and "regeneration". That is, on marketing. A lot of this cash is going to a new company - "The Audience Business" - set up in Edinburgh to market the arts. As a now-retired veteran of the Boards of four SAC-funded Arts Organisations, and as a deviser, ongoing, of arts events, I descry the Gogolian logic of bureaucracy pressing on its mad course.

Last summer, the Independent exposed the way that lottery funds for the arts were being hijacked by accountants and consultants employed at rates far beyond those earnable by actually creative people to "assess" the "viability" of proposals submitted - after which there was little or no cash left. Marketing people with dodgy MBAs plunder phantasmagoric future bums on seats for cash that might otherwise support real theatrical productions with full casts and adequate rehearsal times: more Wagner as good as Scottish Opera's fine current production of Tristan; musical experiments by such remarkable young composer-performers as Tommy Smith and Martyn Bennett; pathbreaking painters - and even worthy writers.

Some excellence markets itself. Scotland's three major orchestras have made recordings which have achieved international esteem; the SCO, without trendy plugging, is selling out its current Beethoven cycle, under the dynamic baton of young Joseph Swenson. But even sellouts depend on subsidy - our bums may be willing, but our wallets are meagre. Audiences want from the live arts the sort of excitement they can't get from CDs and TV. Spectacle, polish, pizzazz, cost money.

And the artists who need money for ambitious projects must have the right to fail. Marketing persons cannot prophesy adverse critics and disappointed first-night audiences. After massive pre-publicity, Forbes Masson's new musical, Stiff, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh has been received with a cagey mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. We shall see if it tightens up sufficiently to woo and win audiences when it goes on tour, or whether it will be remembered as a brave but too-flawed attempt to modernise Scotland's wonderful pantomime tradition for new-millennium grown-ups.

The SAC is fighting for its life. It has been a well-meaning body, with much to its credit. But generically it is a secretive quango. It has recently been mired and mauled in controversy - arts people mostly don't like it. Meanwhile, taxpayers willy-nilly stump up for arts favoured by genteel minorities. People who love these arts, but live in Kirkwall or Stranraer, rarely get to see what they have paid for. (I think it obscene that people in Penzance and Accrington have been footing the colossal bills run up by the grossly mismanaged Royal Opera - and I speak as one who at the last count owned over 50 complete opera recordings.) But there is a case for "national" arts organisations, if their funding is controlled by the people's representatives.

Scottish Opera, needfully, has been by far the SAC's most expensive client. Opera is intrinsically costly. The new Parliament could first decide whether Scotland needs subsidised "national" opera. Since countries of similar or smaller population, such as Denmark and Finland, sustain such operations, I hope that MSPs would accept the case for subsidy. Also for funding from money at Parliament's direct disposal should be the Edinburgh Festival, other international festivals, Scottish Ballet, the major orchestras, and an umbrella organisation for Scottish National Theatre which could promote major multi-venue productions and train Scottish actors to perform better. Money could be voted on an annual or triennial basis, but not without rigorous debate, in which some MSPs might care to advance counter- claims for funding for museums and libraries.

Scotland's greatest artistic glory is its folk music, in a tradition of length and breadth unmatched elsewhere in Europe. It doesn't cost megabucks to stage. Nor does small-scale touring theatre, in which, over the past 30 years, Scotland has achieved seminal successes. Along with smallish festivals, galleries and writerships-in-residence, funding for these could be devolved to local councils. At this level arts are currently budgeted together with recreation. There is good reason for this. If the Scottish Parliament enacts that a given percentage - 5 per cent or more? - of spending by each local council should come from such a budget, elected representatives can fairly weigh the value of theatre and music alongside the need for swimming pools and libraries.

The Arts Council method of funding, as developed in Britain since 1945, has involved giving the public what unelected persons think is good for it. Democratising state support for the arts will no doubt strike elitist aesthetes as dangerous. But I think that by engaging public interest in open debate, it could strengthen the efforts already made by arts organisations to justify community support by taking beautiful and challenging work to people in deprived and remote areas, to schoolchildren and to sick people. In this, as in other fields, the brand-new Scottish parliament might give a useful lead to the rest of the UK.

Angus Calder is the editor of 'Wars', to be published as part of the Penguin Press's Snapshots of the Century series in August.