Tiffany Jenkins talks to Scotland’s culture minister about the new ‘creative industry’ quango

The unexpected hit of this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was Mike Russell MSP, the SNP minister for culture, external affairs and the constitution. Surprisingly for a leading Scottish Nationalist, there was no mention of Rabbie Burns. Nor was it a populist pitch — bigging up bestselling Scottish writers like Irvine Welsh or Ian Rankin. Instead, he spoke of his love for the Chilean communist writer Pablo Neruda, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and even that pillar of Victorian imperialism, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Whatever you think of his politics, you can’t call Mike Russell parochial.

Russell’s cultural hinterland helps to explain why he is winning over the Scottish arts community, a group suspicious of politicians, especially nationalist ones, whose idea of culture may well be a tartan kailyard of bagpipes and Burns. But it’s been an uphill struggle. When appointed at the start of the year, Russell inherited Creative Scotland, a much-maligned project which — by merging the Scottish Arts Council with Scottish Screen — will create an all-purpose ‘creative industry’ quango when it is finally formed through parliamentary process in 2010. He also found himself a frontman for Homecoming Scotland (a year-long event devised to boost tourism by encouraging the Scottish diaspora to revisit the homeland), which was lambasted for relying on images of whisky and golf.

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And, if that wasn’t enough, Russell is picking a fight with Gordon Brown by calling for greater immigration to Scotland. ‘Our view is that Scotland is not full up,’ he states, enthusing that ‘the country is enriched by bringing in new skills and talent’. Entry for cultural visitors, however, is becoming increasingly difficult because of the new rules governing immigration. For example, in October, the Canadian artist Joseph Naytowhow was invited by the Scottish Storytelling Centre to perform in Edinburgh. But he was denied entry to the UK when he arrived at Heathrow. In August, the Borders Agency refused to admit a pipe band from Pakistan, leaving them unable to compete in Glasgow’s World Pipe Band Championships, despite having attended for years. Russell thinks the rules could be made more flexible to cater for performers such as these.

He wants to make sure, though, that Scottish artists get a ‘fair crack of the whip’ through, for example, the Edinburgh Festival Expo Fund. This year the Scottish government raised £6 million for the scheme, administered by the Arts Council, which supports Scottish work at the 12 festivals that take place in Edinburgh every August.

When the Expo was launched, commentators muttered about narrow-minded nationalism. But what emerged, much to their surprise, were innovative, high-quality productions without a kilt or a highland fling in sight. Plays included Barflies about the American writer and alcoholic Charles Bukowski, which somewhat flew in the face of the SNP government’s current crackdown on alcohol consumption.

Russell admits he was initially against the Creative Scotland idea but decided to press ahead because of the recession and the need to ‘shepherd and husband our resources as carefully as possible, and to focus on the frontline’. The aim, he tells me, is greater efficiency, and to concentrate on artists, access and participation.

Even so, isn’t there too much of a focus on the creative industries, which will mean more computer games rather than more painting? An inaccurate caricature, he protests. ‘It works both ways. If you talk to people from the creative industries, they’ll say that all cultural spending has been on fine art. And if you talk to people who are painters, they will say the intention is to stop giving them money and instead give it to people who make computer games. Neither is true.’

Then what about the charge that Creative Scotland will erode the ‘arm’s length’ principle that keeps government separate from the arts? Not true either, he claims. He thinks there was a misunderstanding over what an arm’s-length policy meant. It’s never been the intention to have non-departmental bodies created totally independent of government. ‘What government does is set the policy context within which these bodies operate,’ he says. ‘Then they [Creative Scotland and others] do the work and fill in the blanks, and deliver the policy in the broadest of senses.’ I am not convinced by this. But Russell is impatient to get things moving. ‘After years of debating structures, we should stop. You know, let’s get it done.

‘No structure is perfect,’ he concedes, but getting on with it ‘allows us to concentrate, on things that, dare I say it, are a little more important’.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated