The vexed question of supporting Scottish creative talent in Britain

Matthew Paris’ map of Great Britain. St Albans, c.1250 British Library Cotton MS Claudius D.vi, f.12v Copyright © The British Library Board

At the State of the Arts Conference last week, a last minute switch led me to being part of the panel discussing Has Britain Got Any Talent for Talent? instead of a session on the public and the arts. Thinking about it, I realised that I was being asked to consider two concepts which were largely fuzzy.  One was the notion of ‘talent’ itself, given its current diverse use to mean anything to young performers, staff in a corporate organisation, contestants in a talent show and to anyone who works in the screen industries;  and as applied to the individual gift each of us has in life. And its overuse in the public sector applied to skills and employment as in Creative Britain: new Talents for the New Economy.  Which brings me to the other fuzzy concept, that of ‘Britain’.  ‘Britain’ is properly neither the UK, which is Great Britain and Northern Ireland, nor Great Britain, which is England Wales and Scotland, not the British Isles which includes the whole of Ireland.

Britain includes nations where cultural policy is devolved and, in Scotland, so are many other powers including education, but neither fiscal policy nor tax raising powers.  So, within the broad canvas of Britain and Talent, some areas are less British and more Scottish.  The importance of supporting, celebrating and rewarding artistic talent as an expression of cultural identity is less and less of a British issue and more of a national one for the devolved nations, particularly in Scotland.

Many Scottish creatives and artists now identify as Scottish and /or Scottish British as opposed to British. They compete, exhibit, perform and trade on international platforms and the best are awarded British and international prizes, like Richard Wright and Carol Ann Duffy.

The symbiotic relationship between artists and cultural identity is enshrined in many international policies and the recognition and support of a nation’s artistic and creative talent has a higher value to small and emergent nations.

And, for those artists who may not be commercially successful – the poet, the painter – the greatest recognition can come from the state.

In 1969 Charles Haughey, the then Taisoch of Ireland, closely advised by the writer Antony Cronin, made changes to state policy which signalled to the world the importance of artists to the independent state of Ireland, through the introduction of three things:

1 the exemption from income tax from creative content and products – paintings, composition, books, etc .This was later capped and is now under threat again as Ireland fights severe economic crisis.

2. tax incentives for investors in the Irish film industry, in a move which has had long term economic impact

3. the establishment of Aosdana, the academy of recognised artists, where being a member confers recognition and reward

Not only have these measures contributed towards Ireland’s international artistic success and reputation but they have engendered a respect for artists as leaders. In the bloody fighting in Ireland over the funds in a decimated public purse, the arts sector has fought and won through a brilliant campaign. Using  hard evidence about the sector’s economic contribution of €11.8 billion or 7.6% of GDP was one weapon which saved the Film Board, Culture Ireland and 94 per cent of the arts budget.  Another was the impassioned influence of artists who campaigned publicly or who gave evidence to political committees, including Sebastian Barry, Joseph O’Connor, Colm McCann, Colm Tobain to Brendan Gleeson, given prime place in the Dail and the media as respected leaders, confident, assured and celebrated.

While other countries have made some tax concessions for artists, no other country has made such a major statement about the importance of artistic talent to its cultural identity.

For Scotland, recognising, celebrating and supporting its artistic talent is a key component of cultural policy, a devolved power. As a small country, recognising the talent may be relatively easy.  But the powers to support that Scottish talent is limited by  Westminster.  The current minority SNP administration is committed in principle to tax exemptions for artists but does not have the fiscal autonomy to do this.   Our world leading talent for interactive games in Dundee has watched its competitive position weaken as France, Canada and now Ireland offer tax incentives.

The Scottish Government is bringing forward the Referendum Bill to support greater devolution of such matters. Fiona Hyslop, the Culture Minister, said yesterday

“Artists and creators often hold up a mirror to society, reflecting back the experience of belonging; nowhere more so than in Scotland, where our distinctive cultural life is known the world over.

“I firmly believe that a Scotland with more control over its own affairs – a Scotland more confident in itself – would see fresh creativity shine through as a result. In turn, a more confident nation leads to an even more creative one – a virtuous circle of increasing confidence and creativity.

“There is a hard edge to this, of course, as Scotland trades on the international recognition of its culture and heritage. It is a major attraction for visitors and showcases our country as a diverse and exciting place to live and work; so increased confidence and creativity can only be good for business.

Artists in Scotland have an important role to play in the success of the nation as well as in the UK – sorry – Britain,  and internationally.  And political recognition with visible backing is essential.

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