If Scottish self-rule puts mediocrity in charge, forget it

News from Elsewhere
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There is a convenient misconception among politicians that electors are busy people who must be spared the irksome responsibility of going to vote more than once every three years. The truth is that many of us are childishly excited by the democratic process, love the thought of entering a polling booth and would relish the opportunity to eject our masters more often than we do. The annual election of councillors would be particularly welcome.

A recent example of poll phobia was the ridicule heaped on Labour's Scottish establishment over the proposal to stage two referendums on devolution - the first to establish whether we want a parliament in Edinburgh and whether it should have tax-raising powers; the next to confirm that we meant what we said the first time. The notion that we should be invited to the ballot box twice, for heaven's sake, was so universally derided in the Scottish press that it was swiftly dropped.

Personally, I would not object to half a dozen referendums if they helped bring about a more exciting, self-confident Scotland. I would happily trudge to the ballot box in our village hall every Thursday for six months if the eventual result was a parliament of all the talents in an Edinburgh bursting with bright ideas. Why, then, do I contemplate the possibility of home rule with diminishing enthusiasm? Why does the tartan tax - just 3p extra for all those improved services - fail to make me swoon with anticipation?

A Sunday newspaper, not this one, claimed recently that English-based Scots are returning north in their thousands. It carried a picture of the literary agent, Giles Gordon, paddling in the sea at Portobello as proof that the trains, when they run, are full of exiles hurrying home to be part of some brave new Scotland. They have been attracted back, it said, by the "economic resurgence" north of the border, the "cultural renaissance led by Irvine Welsh" and the prospect of "having a say" in Tony Blair's referendum or referendums.

It is true that there has been a slight increase in the Scottish population, though whether the deciding factor for returning natives was the alluring spectacle of heroin addicts injecting themselves in Leith (our "cultural renaissance") or the opening of three new wine bars in Glasgow (our "economic resurgence") is hard to say. It is even possible that the slight increase is not due to returning Scots at all, but to the continuing invasion of the Highlands by B & B proprietors called Shufflebottom, who at once renounce their Home Counties origins and join the Scottish National Party.

Nevertheless, Giles Gordon is not alone. Another able Scot who has forsaken London for the doubtful pleasures of Edinburgh society is the journalist Magnus Linklater. And it is his case that makes me wonder if I should really look forward to home rule.

Anyone tempted to swallow Fleet Street's more fanciful versions of Scottish regeneration should study the progress of Linklater since he caught the gravy train to Waverley. He came home to edit the Scotsman, a job he had always coveted. As expected, he improved the paper and did much to restore its prestige and authority. He was then fired by a foolish, ungrateful management. He recovered from this, continues to live in Edinburgh and now writes about Scottish affairs for the Times.

A few months ago the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, invited him to be the chairman of the Scottish Arts Council. It was a brilliant appointment, imaginative as well as open-minded. Linklater accepted, but made it clear that he wished to be paid for his time. The figure of pounds 20,000 a year was agreed, not over-generous for a commitment of two and a half days a week by a man of his experience and ability.

It never occurred to me that Linklater would not be paid. Even the dreary book-keepers who chair NHS trusts collect pounds 18,000 a year for the privilege of making hospitals dangerous places in which to be ill. Though the chairmanship of the Scottish Arts Council is a rather more demanding and high-profile public office, its holders in the past have received no more than out- of-pocket expenses: they have all been terribly rich, it seems. Linklater is not terribly rich. He is a professional writer who requires to earn a living. He also happens to be the right man for the job.

Now, you might imagine that a modest remuneration for Magnus Linklater would present no great problem to a country on the threshold of beneficial change, longing to take responsibility for its own affairs, small in size but big in ambition. You might even imagine that such a country would embrace the egalitarian idea of public offices being filled, not by some Lord or Lady Bountiful, but solely on grounds of skill and suitability. But you would be wrong. For this is Scotland.

News of the retainer was seized upon by a newspaper owned by Linklater's former employers in Edinburgh and provoked a full-scale stushie (Scottish for rumpus, often of a meaningless, even ludicrous sort). Un-named "experts in the field" condemned the payment, as did "artists too worried to speak out". Oh, dear, are the artists of our born-again Scotland really such timorous beasties?

Some "experts" did speak out. Mary Picken, arts officer of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, said she was "appalled" by the decision to pay Linklater: "Another pounds 20,000 is taken away from the arts to make another job at the Arts Council". Michael Russell, chief executive of the Scottish National Party, said "a paid and effective chairman might be a useful innovation, but not at the price of an inevitable decline in the resources available for actual arts activities in this country."

However, it is possible to over-estimate the damage done to the arts in Scotland by Linklater's scandalous demand for lolly. Excluding lottery cash, the Scottish Arts Council receives pounds 25m a year, of which its chairman's retainer amounts to a whopping 0.08 per cent. The Pickens of this world point out that this is equivalent to the commissioning bursaries for four new plays. If we produce one new play worth seeing in the next 25 years, with or without an Arts Council bursary, we will be doing well.

This absurd row, I fear, may be a foretaste of Scotland under home rule. Until recently, I took it for granted that a parliament in Edinburgh would widen our outlook, lift our spirits and enlarge our vision; now I am not so convinced. The pettiness revealed by the Linklater episode suggests a more disturbing prospect: that the benches of the Royal High School will groan under the weight of disagreeable trade union apparatchiks and redundant Strathclyde councillors, spitefully driving out any talent we have managed to retain.

It is not the messy consequences of devolution that will have me hesitating in the village hall should Mr Blair decide to call one referendum too many. The mess I can stand; what will turn me into a unionist yet is the stifling boredom.