To lose one culture minister may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose nine in ten years looks like carelessness. In the latest round of musical chairs, we have lost a minister who was in command of the culture brief and have reverted to what looks like the latest in a round of temporary incumbents who no sooner begin to understand culture before they are moved on. Successive First Ministers from Jack McConnell in his St Andrew’s Day Speech in 2003 to Alex Salmond now have been passionate about the vital importance of the arts, culture and creative industries to our success as a nation. If the latest change is not to be regarded as a lack of commitment to culture then it signals a lack of understanding about the pivotal importance as to how the role is discharged.
Mike Russell was the best culture minister we have had, with a firm grasp not only of the issues in his portfolio but with a fluency in the language of the arts and creativity without which no culture minister can expect to engage with and lead the sector. That fluency comes both from his own experience in the arts, as a writer and filmmaker and through long term relationships with people in the arts community. These are characteristics of successful culture ministers across the world. They are not things that can be achieved during one of the cursory tours of duty undertaken by other ministers. The cultural community doesn’t fit neatly into the public sector boxes which characterise the landscape of most ministerial portfolios, like education, health and justice. The powerful voices – those who command respect locally, nationally and internationally – include independent and freelance artists, games designers, architects, writers, broadcasters, performers, composers, entrepreneurs and volunteers as well as the more orderly national cultural institutions. Russell built up trust with the sector - a trust that is not easily transferable to a new Culture Minister perceived to have been demoted. The cultural community will of course welcome Fiona Hyslop, induct her into their world and explain their agendas in what might be seen as a further diversion from getting on with generating great art and creative experiences. And as a seasoned politician and theatre attender, there is no reason why she should not be good at the job - until the next reshuffle.
Successful culture ministers must have both legitimacy and authority. What previous Culture Minister would have had the clout demonstrated by Mike Russell as he quashed in one fell swoop years of arguing by firmly stating to the cultural community that “Creative Scotland must put behind it the old and false dichotomy of culture and the economy as both are essential” ? None.
If he is serious about Scotland’s success as one of the world’s most creative nations, the First Minister must appoint a credible leader for a reasonable tenure. That person should have legitimacy – so perhaps should be an artist or creative entrepreneur. That is certainly what other, culturally confident, nations have done.
The culture minister with most credibility internationally now is perhaps Australia’s Peter Garrett, former member of the band Midnight Oil, renowned for its protest shows, notably the anti- Exxon performance on a truck top in New York.
Nicolas Sarkozy, recognising the need for cultural cred, has appointed Frédéric Mitterand, TV showman, writer, film producer and gay activist. Mitterand has already created controversy not least because of a colourful personal life. He follows in the tradition of the film goddess Melina Mercouri, who ruffled British feathers with her impassioned demands for the return of the Elgin marbles during her tenure as Greek Culture Minister. Jack Lang, theatre and festival director, during his tenure as Culture Minister, created the Lang Law, fixing the price of books. The Brazilian musician and activist Gilberto Gil, as Culture Minister, pioneered programmes to increase access through technology and music.
Of course the Culture Minister should not be the only champion and leader of the arts, culture and creative industries in Scotland This is a role for Creative Scotland but the timing is such that the Chair of the statutory body cannot be appointed until the Public Services Reform Bill is passed by Parliament, and neither has the first CEO been appointed. These vacancies only exacerbate the void left by Russell.
What Scotland needs now is a Cultural Leader in the Scottish Government who will be in it for the long term, speak the language, maintain the relationships – and then be bold. When artists take the helm it might not be plain sailing –but they may stay the course.