In post-referendum Scotland, it is becoming commonplace to talk about the aspirations of a growing number of citizens who demand new ways of participating in politics and policy-making. This apparent momentum should not be cause for uncritical optimism, however. I have been a bit scunnered by politics in Scotland of late, and after several conversations with many fellow campaigners it seems that I am not alone. In the words of Oliver Escobar, ‘perhaps it is time to navigate and expand that narrow patch of hopeful land left between cynicism and complacency.’
In my work and research I am interested in exploring the possibilities for cultural policy. The first part of this essay raises concerns with the approach and lack of vision of the think tank Common Weal when it comes to culture. The second part - at the risk of sounding overly academic - sketches out a picture of where we are at in national and international terms with cultural policy. What is offered is here in the spirit of provocation and aspiration: a plea to enlarge the narrative.
I believe in the Common Weal project. It played a vital role in the Scottish indyref campaign and it continues to play a vital role in Scottish public life. Actual self-determination concerns individual and collective autonomy as articulated through participatory democratic decision making, enabling the public to participate to the greatest extent possible. Through projects like their ‘Policy Labs’ - the first pilot on education happening this week - CW has the potential to help make this possible, by making policy accessible to the public as well as acting as a vehicle for such grassroots participatory policy creation.
Given that CW promotes itself as a ‘cultural’ organisation and has promoted several cultural events and festivals - I wanted to find out more about their participatory approaches to cultural policy. Rather than being marginal to the political process, I believe - along with many others - that culture should be at the beating heart of all public policy:
“Culture makes the difference between existing and living. It shapes our sense of ourselves and of the places where we spend our lives. It gives a community – whether a family, a village, a city or a nation – its sense of cohesion and identity, of pride and dignity: a collective understanding and shared experience which is the foundation of citizenship. ”
— Culture Matters, Edinburgh 2014
What is Scotland’s radical think-and-do tank’s vision for a radical cultural policy in Scotland? Does it have one? The much-celebrated CW book, Practical Idealism for Scotland (2014) does not include a chapter on cultural policy. It is difficult even to find a reference to their views on culture beyond the celebration of artists as ‘entertainment’ at their many political events. On the ‘Key Ideas’ page on their website, I finally found a box link - second-to-last - called ‘Cultural Participation.’ On this page there are two paragraphs. The first one reads:
“We should aim to get people to participate in their nation. We have looked elsewhere (see ‘We Need Real Democracy’) at how to enable people to participate properly in community politics. But our history, heritage, culture and language are also aspects of our nation which people care about and are interested in. We need to think about how we get people to engage with these things. One important step would be to prioritise the growth of domestic tourism. Scotland is a wonderful country to spend time visiting (as the many international tourists who come here will testify) but it can be expensive. The UK has some of the highest rail fares in Europe and transport costs generally which are very high by international standards....”
‘To prioritise the growth of domestic tourism’? Now, there is nothing wrong with promoting domestic tourism as a rule, but this paragraph emphasises that in order to ensure greater 'cultural participation' we need, first and foremost, to seek to reduce transport costs so that we can go and ‘see things.’ The second paragraph calls for discussion of a Scottish broadcasting service and for investment in the film industry. All well and good. But where, in this, is there a call for a radical vision that transforms the nation into a participative democracy of active cultural citizenship?
I was intrigued, then, to find out that the CW are promoting a show this August at the Edinburgh International Fringe Show, the ‘Butterfly Rammy’ at the Stand Comedy Club. This is billed as ‘a cultural project by Common Weal’ and promises a ‘cabaret of the art and ideas of Scotland's political awakening.’ Each show is ‘based around one Scots word that represents the multiple and diverse thinking and activism that developed through the independence movement.’ The CW will also produce an accompanying book, Butterfly Rammy: the Art of Scotland’s Polictical Awakening, where artists and writers reflect on ‘what happened’ in poems, stories and images. I am sure that it will be a great show and raucous good fun for those involved – a string of familiar names and brilliant artists, many of whom were involved in the creative cultural campaign for independence.
Something doesn’t sit just quite right about the framing of this cultural project. Firstly, this event is not interested in or themed around issues in cultural policy, which is surprising given that the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas is tackling this subject in the very same venue. Second is the token use of the Scots language, not for political resistance but for frills and decoration - to add 'character' and 'colour' to the event (not to mention the complete absence of Gaelic). It feels a bit like the CW is appropriating Scottish culture to promote its own political project without tackling and critically engaging with the fundamental issues facing culture. In the CW cultural project, culture plays a marginal and not a vital role.
Lastly, the main question is this: Who is this event for?
The promotional post on Facebook tells us,
"It’s important for us to remember the vital cultural and creative connections we all made during the referendum. Butterfly Rammy will inject this back into our politics, celebrating what was an incredible, historic and fun campaign."
Yes, those relationships forged during the referendum campaign were life-giving and should be fostered with great care. And yes, we should not forget what was achieved. But why the light-hearted nostalgia? What is to be gained by this? A fellow campaigner asked, ‘Will this achieve anything? Will it move the debate forward? And why aren't there more voices from other political persuasions?' Creating a space for productive dialogue and engaging with different points of view is absolutely vital if we are to move forward and avoid simply talking to ourselves. Surely the real question is this: where has this energy gone that it needs 'injected back into our politics' with the help of the CW? Where is the breadth and diversity of the movement? Where are the many voices of the independence campaign?
So many of these voices have been funnelled into the mainstream of the SNP. Witnessing the co-option of movements working for radical cultural transformation and social justice into the political mainstream has been heart-wrenching for many, myself included. In my view, this demands critical attention and action: not complacent nostalgia and a well-deserved pat on the back for a campaign that is already viewed through rose-tinted glasses.
For many of us very much involved in the cultural campaign pre-referendum, the CW’s Butterfly Rammy feels very much like an uncomfortable re-hashing of times past. Looking back with critical reflection, there are many things we could and should have done differently, but we should use the benefit of our hindsight and channel it into a future vision. Why not focus our collective energies on the here and now and on into the future? We have a collective opportunity to create a participative democracy of cultural citizenship for everyone who lives here, and moreover, to put culture at the very heart of that policy.
With a majority Tory government now in Westminster, Labour in tatters on both sides of the border and a monolithic SNP party in both parliaments, it is more important than ever that we have a genuine public opposition. We need voices to challenge and critique government effectively and demand viable alternatives where necessary. We need radical policy proposals across the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental domains. If the CW does nothing else, it should be to focus energy and resources on policy research and creation and facilitate participation in the democratic process.
But what actually is ‘cultural policy?’ And still yet, what is ‘culture’ that it can be transformed into an object of policy-making?
Opinions vary on the definition of culture and of cultural policy. The definition of 'culture’ in most of the ways we currently use the term emerged in the nineteenth century through two contrasting approaches: culture as a set of artistic practices or products, or culture as an anthropological signifying system marking human society off from nature. The anthropological sense of culture – as a way of life – is recognised in UNESCO’s framework for culture as a 'set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, that encompasses, not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs' (UNESCO, 2002). I am talking about culture here in broadly anthropological terms, but also use it to refer to specific practices or products in certain contexts.
Cultural policy, then, is what governments at various scales choose to do or not to do in relation to culture. It is not a simple top-down hierarchy whereby central government cascades policy agendas ‘down’ to regional and local scales; indeed much of the exciting work happens at the grassroots thanks to community activists and organisations. Neither does cultural policy exist in isolation from other policy domains, such as economic policy, welfare and social policy, foreign policy and so on. Rather, cultural policy is part of an ecological complexity that should be integrated in every aspect of public policy, ensuring that cultural considerations are present in all policy processes. Imagine what would life be like if cultural considerations, broadly defined, were as much a part of local and regional governance as are economic concerns?
The rationales which drive cultural policy vary according to time, place and political context. The post-war period saw an enthusiasm for cultural democracy characterised as the democratisation of ‘high culture.’ In the context of Adorno's famous critique of the culture industry, the goal was to provide access to high culture for the masses, in an attempt to help heal society after the devastation of the world wars. Emerging from this philosophy, of course, was Rudolf Bing’s Edinburgh International Festival. In the 1970s, with the rise of feminism and post-colonialism, cultural democracy was re-imagined to emphasise diversity and plurality, giving voice to marginalised groups. This progress was challenged in the 1980s with the advance of global free market economics, which was later embraced by ‘New Labour.’ Present government initiatives are premised on the top-down ‘democratisation’ of culture, a process aimed at engaging members of ‘excluded’ groups in historically privileged cultural arenas. Some have argued that New Labour’s empty rhetoric of 'social inclusion' policy has actually co-opted the marginalised into a wider political project of market-driven economics. To define a group or individual as ‘socially excluded’ is to plan for their ‘inclusion’ - a process which might be seen as a form of manipulation or regulation, rather than envisioning radical possibilities for overcoming the very basis of inequality itself.
Recent decades have seen economic drivers – the growth of the cultural sectors and their ability to generate profits and jobs – come to the forefront in many countries, where culture is valued as an ‘asset.’ The so-called ‘creative industries’ have a clear beginning: in the New Labour ‘Creative Industries Taskforce’ in the UK in 1997. In line with the neo-liberal dominance of politics at that time, the role of policy was to focus on the supply side – not to challenge the vested commercial interests that dominated and still dominate cultural production and distribution today. The change in terminology from ‘cultural’ to ‘creative’ also has significant political implications, signalling a retreat from the leftist politics.
“Creative industries are those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property”
— DCMS, 2001
The link between the cultural sectors and economic growth has formed the basis of almost every policy document written on the creative industries since. We see the promotional use of culture gaining ground in different national contexts. This is twofold: the state takes on the role of ‘cultural impresario,’ using trade and industry methods to ‘sell’ culture; at the same time, culture is used to promote or ‘sell’ the nation. In Scotland, this approach was embraced wholeheartedly by the SNP government.
This particular moment in cultural policy-making also bears clear traces of a broader ideological shift in the technologies of cultural governance, symbolised by things like audits and the trend towards evidence-based policy in the context of this new ‘era of public management.’ While it can be argued that there is the pragmatic necessity of ‘measurement,’ the negative effects of this approach are often overlooked. That is to say that policy rhetoric often disguises a much larger narrative that is ‘hiding in plain sight.’ There is room for the creative industries, but this is not the whole story. There is a need to enlarge policy discourse to make space for the full spectrum of cultural possibilities.
Counter to the prevalence and enthusiasm for the creative industries worldwide, UNESCO’s 2013 report on the Creative Economy (which, to confuse matters, operates a with a different definition of creative economy than most national governments) recognises that there are different kinds of economic models - from co-operatives and non-profits to individual lifestyle business, barter or sharing systems - and that these may offer more appropriate models for cultural activities which represent other sources of value for people beyond the economic. This stress on different pathways to development in strong contrast to the strongly neo-liberalising tendency of cultural policy in many nations today. The way in which UNESCO’s shift in policy will be recognised or taken up by national governments, city authorities or community and activist groups remains to be seen, however. Some writers have suggested that rather than culture seeking to measure itself in economic terms, it might take an active role in actually redefining what we mean by the ‘economic’ itself.
So what is the role of national cultural policy?
Culture has traditionally been considered the domain of national sovereignty, evidenced in the stark differences in member states' own conception of cultural policy. In a European context, culture is an area where diversities between member states are particularly obvious - not only are people's cultures, in an anthropological sense, very different, but institutional forms of managing this area are also specific to each country. National cultural policy objectives become intrinsically more difficult in a global context, in which local cultural expression becomes difficult to separate from the effects of the global cultural industries: Hollywood cinema, TV, high street fashion, popular music. Cultural institutions seem less relevant when so much art and culture finds people by everyday routes.
At the heart of any national cultural policy is a very particular form of instrumentalism: the use of culture to create, and continually reiterate, national identity. This is often done through small acts of banal nationalism; in some cases it plays out in huge performances such as London 2012 or the Commonwealth Games 2014. The question is this: should any nation’s cultural policy seek to celebrate a constructed national cultural identity rather than supporting the heterogeneous cultural identities of the diversity of its citizens?
In this sense, cultural policy thus becomes a measure or marker of national character in a broader sense – the very ‘doing’ of national cultural policy is a statement about culture and about the nation-state. The UK model is based on a patron system - devolving cultural policy implementation to so-called arm’s-length bodies; the USA uses a facilitator model, funding the arts via tax exemption or donation. France uses state bureaucracy directly and aims to enhance social welfare via the arts; in Russia, the State seeks to engineer culture through ownership of the means of production.
In terms of progressive cultural policy at a national level in a global context, Sweden has long been at the forefront of development. The aims of its government are as follows: freedom of expression, to safeguard freedom of expression and to create genuine conditions for everyone to use it; of equality, to lobby to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to take part in cultural life, to come into contact with culture and to indulge in creative cultural activities of their own; of diversity, to promote cultural diversity, artistic renewal and quality, thereby countering the effects of commercialism; of independence, to provide suitable conditions for culture to act as a dynamic, challenging and independent force in society; the cultural heritage objective, to preserve and make use of cultural heritage and lastly, to promote the drive towards learning.
An outline sketch of the so-called ‘Nordic model’ looks like this:
• Welfare-oriented (in terms of the welfare role of the arts and welfare support for artists)
• Strong artists’ organisations with strong links to public sector
• High levels of public subsidy and scepticism of market/ private funding
• Egalitarian cultural life with stress on access
• Key role for cultural policy in national identity
• Strong decentralisation to local and regional levels
• Mix of ‘facilitator’ and ‘patron’ model of national cultural policy administration – strong cultural ministries and strong devolved arts councils
Despite the fact that this might be the most forward looking of all national cultural policy models, it is still contested by some for its tidying up of a more complex regional picture, and fairly high levels of cultural homogeneity.
In Scotland, there is still a lack of coherent cultural policy and a failure to formalise a high-level commitment to culture at government level. Why not? Should Scotland have a cultural policy? If yes, what should it look like?
During the referendum campaign itself there was a lack of engagement with this issue. The expansive SNP White Paper actually excludes any references to a national cultural strategy or policy. Culture is, of course, devolved to the Scottish parliament, but broadcasting and media is not. Post-indyref, the SNP cannot get away with the rhetoric that Scotland’s internal cultural policy is fine - it just needs to be ‘managed’ well - and that all policy problems are external. This is not the case.
One of the casualties of the separation of cultural from media policy has been the failure to explain how cultural policy influences the whole of our cultural life, not just the arts on one hand or the media on the other. Through Creative Scotland, the Scottish Government is seeking to implement a ‘single purpose’ growth paradigm of sustainable development where the creative industries and instrumentalism are central priorities in the policy discourse. This has given rise to a well-worn debate over instrumental versus intrinsic values, most famously coming to a head in the Creative Scotland 'Stooshie' of 2012, where artists and individuals began to use social media as a means of engagement and protest. This movement led directly to major changes in the management, style, communications and funding systems of the Creative Scotland looking forward. The new 10 year plan, published in 2014 is not bad; it’s just not nearly radical enough and does little to challenge this widespread neo-liberalising tendency.
Also in 2012, the cultural advocacy body Culture Counts – a group of agencies, organisations and individuals representing the arts, media, culture, heritage, cultural industries and museums – successfully campaigned for a national indicator for culture within the government’s performance framework. This is a start. Given that Culture Counts represents a range of publicly funded bodies, the power it has to lobby the government is limited. What is really needed is a participatory grassroots cultural forum enacting democracy from below.
In very recent times, the debate surrounding independence and the publication of the SNP’s white paper has shifted what some Scottish politicians appear to view as the ‘key terrain’ of cultural policy. Questions remaining unresolved include the relative power control and responsibility of UK, Scottish national and local government authorities' definitions of culture, and the extent to which cultural policy should include the arts, creativity and the creative industries.
So why are we not making more of this opportunity?
Back in 2004, the Cultural Policy Collective – associated with Variant magazine and supported by the then Scottish Arts Council - published a document called Beyond Social Inclusion – Towards Cultural Democracy in which they stated:
“ If, indeed, there is a growing crisis of democratic legitimation and social justice in Scotland today, then cultural workers must work collectively with others to offer forms of political resistance – this is as true of the cultural sphere as of any other. This means extending our activities beyond the production of critical artworks and fighting to renew cultural policy”
— Cultural Policy Collective, 2004
If we were facing a growing crisis in 2004, we are surely in far worse times today. We have since lived through a global banking crisis, the election of a Tory government at Westminster with a powerless SNP contingent in Westminster. There is a systemic and existential crisis of government in the EU coupled with the rise of the far right. We are facing global trade agreements that threaten the legal power of nation states with TTIP (presided over by unaccountable bureaucrats or an EU elite). There is turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East which is causing the displacement and disenfranchisement of millions of people.
In Scotland, what might we envision in a ‘renewed’ cultural policy? What can we contribute to the world? There have been attempts in the recent past. In 2013, the ‘Group with No Name’ delivered a petition to the government for the adoption of a participative cultural policy, titled ‘A Progressive Creative Stance for Scotland.’ This was signed by only 466 supporters. The full text can be read here. That there was not more support for this project was disappointing. Given existing power relationships within the production and implementation of cultural policy in Scotland, how can Scottish cultural policy deliver the sort of change envisioned? Legislation is needed, but that this will never materialise so long as there remains a nervousness and reluctance amongst public policy-makers to intervene in culture in the ways that might be needed to address the inequities in levels of cultural provision that persist across Scotland.
Working towards renewing cultural policy "centres on the need for praxis – for theoretically informed, critically reflective action which is oriented towards social justice across the integrated economic, political, cultural, kinship and ecological spheres of our existence."
— French & Asher, 2012 'Crisis Capitalism and Independence Doctrines,' Bella Caledonia
As Susan Jones recently wrote in the Guardian, 'the arts sector is in desperate need of a fresh perspective.' She believes that Scotland has the potential to lead the way:
“In terms of fostering inclusivity, we could also learn a lot from how Scotland does things: that is, fast and with flair. Culture: What Next? – which is not to be confused with the What Next? movement – provoked immediate responses from artists and cultural workers on the future of Scottish culture post the general election. A 16-point Cultural Affirmation published soon afterwards by event collaborator TRACS articulates the right to, and value of, arts and culture in political, constitutional and social terms: “We artists, cultural workers, educators and citizens of Scotland, commit ourselves through our creative practice to the free development of human potential, to social and environmental justice, equality and sustainability.”
— Susan Jones, The Guardian Culture Professional Network, June 2015
Cultural democracy emphasises the ultimate aim of enabling everyone to participate in decisions to the greatest extent possible. This implies decentralisation. With such an appetite for ‘active citizenship,’ what about ‘cultural citizenship’? This is not citizenship in the narrow legal sense of papers and voting rights, but about the inner sense of belonging that allows us to feel that we are welcome in our society and community, that our contributions count, that our heritage and our expressions are respected. In many societies, even people who possess the right to vote feel keenly the extent to which they are denied the fullness of cultural citizenship on account of race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, or other characteristics seen as social deficits.
How do we overcome structural issues and the ideological relations underpinning cultural 'provision'? How do we create democratic space free from corporatism and its appropriation of cultural meaning? How do we find a new language/vocabulary as alternative to the language of the all-pervasive neo-liberal model? How do we extend participation in policy processes from the grassroots up? What are the key sites and issues through which this process might be engaged? What culture needs is a democratic mandate from the public. The challenge, which is already being taken up in some places, is to create a different alignment between culture, politics and the public. In practice this will require courage, confidence and radicalism in finding new ways to build greater legitimacy directly with citizens.
These are the kinds of questions that CW, if they are going to engage with culture, must address. The approach taken by the CW in their Butterfly Rammy - using Scots language and celebrating Scottish culture because it is Scottish to promote CW - is a form of appropriating and instrumentalising culture, a charge that could equally be levelled at both the UK and Scottish government. Unless there is a collective will to fight to renew cultural policy, we will not overcome the 'growing crises' of democratic legitimation in Scotland today.
My plea is this: rather than in indulging in cosy nostalgic complacency, why don't we get stuck in with a truly radical cultural vision for Scotland?