Referendum battle lines drawn in culture wars

The Edinburgh Festival is a jewel in Scotland's cultural crown ' but opinion is split on how it would fare in an independent Scotland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Edinburgh Festival is a jewel in Scotland's cultural crown ' but opinion is split on how it would fare in an independent Scotland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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BIG names in culture and the arts have been taking sides in the independence debate. Author Alasdair Gray, singer Eddi Reader and actress Elaine C Smith are among those signed up for Yes, while Harry Potter’s creator JK Rowling, entertainer John Barrowman and fashion designer Christopher Kane are in the No camp.

They have spoken about their hopes and fears for the future of the country. But what would an independent Scotland mean for the arts and culture themselves?

As the festival city and home to the nation’s most important museums and galleries, Edinburgh has a big stake in the answer to that question.

The SNP’s Steve Cardownie, the city council’s festivals and events champion, believes independence would mean more visitors to the Capital and an even bigger platform for Edinburgh’s cultural contribution.

“People would want to visit this newly independent country,” he says. “There will be a genuine interest.”

And he believes Edinburgh’s festivals would be a key part of an independent Scotland’s cultural credentials.

He says: “Any new country would want to establish itself on the world map and build up its own brand.

“One of our strongest suits is the festivals we put on here in Edinburgh, which are internationally renowned and draw people from all over the world, not only to attend but also to perform.

“It would be a golden opportunity for an independent country to let people see it embraces all cultures and creeds and looks outward, not inward.”

And despite troubled economic times, the festivals are flourishing.

“We have just had the most successful festival period ever,” says Councillor Cardownie.

“It’s one of the main economic drivers in the city and has a spin-off for the whole of Scotland.

“I’m sure any government of a newly independent country will want to polish this particular jewel in the crown.”

However, not everyone sees the prospects for the arts under independence in such a positive light.

Norma Austin Hart, Labour spokeswoman for arts and culture on the city council, says: “Almost everything to do with the arts and culture is already devolved so the questions about support for the arts are to do with what the different parties put in their manifestos for the next election.

“That said, when it comes to the Heritage Lottery Fund last year we in Scotland got 20 per cent of all allocations although we only have 8.5 per cent of the population.

“There is no way we could hope to replicate that in an independent Scotland. That’s a major source of investment that would be lost.”

And she is sceptical about a Yes vote delivering a boost for Edinburgh’s festivals.

“The festivals are not successful because they are Scottish, but because they offer the best arts and culture in the world.

“My fear would be if we start to concentrate on their Scottishness we become parochial and inward-looking instead of global and outward-looking.”

James Holloway, former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, is also against independence. “Scotland has an extraordinary wealth of great works of art in public ownership,” he says. “Independence won’t change that, but it must surely make adding to those collections much harder.”

He says art purchases are heavily dependent on the generosity of an independent charity, the Art Fund, and last year Scotland got 15 per cent of its donations. But he asks: “Will the Art Fund continue to give grants to Scotland if the country elects to leave the United Kingdom? Why should it continue to support the collections of a foreign country?”

Other senior cultural figures argue the close link between tourism and museums and galleries and their importance in growing the Scottish economy is enough to suggest any future independent government would prioritise funds for these institutions. The SNP’s independence White Paper describes public funding of the arts as “a fundamental good” and adds: “Independence will provide the opportunity to take this to new heights”.

Edinburgh-based painter Callum Innes, who was shortlisted for the 1995 Turner Prize won by Damien Hirst, says he is proud to be Scottish, but believes the independence cause is built too much on a rhetoric and culture – including woad-painted marchers – which Scotland should have left behind. “I’m independent of thought – I think all artists are,” he says. “But one of the things that bothers me is the rhetoric and the painted faces.

“I think devolution is a great thing and we should probably head towards devo-max.

“But we are the country of the Enlightenment, then we suddenly go back to a culture of waving banners and painted faces – that’s not what Scotland is about.

“There’s Tartan Week in New York every year and all right it’s a bit of publicity, but it’s Victorian publicity.”

Mr Innes says Scotland punches above its weight in the arts. “Per head, we have more international artists than down south. I’m a Scottish artist and I’m proud of it. I travel the world and people love talking about Scotland.

“If I’m abroad and people say ‘You come from England’ I always correct them.

“But I still live and work in Britain. I think the union brings many benefits.

“When the world is fragmenting and countries are shouting about nationalism, I feel independence is not the right thing to be doing.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com