As Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, taps into Scotland’s rich creative vein
Film premieres, gallery openings, foreign visits, ballets, orchestral recitals and brass band performances; it’s not all party, party, party but while her diary reads like a society hostess’s almanac, Fiona Hyslop admits that a good night out is now, for her, a good night in.
And amid all the showbiz glitz and glamour, the air kissing luvvies and the high brow creatives, Scotland’s culture secretary confesses, with a giggle, that the highlight of her busy brief thus far has been…feeding a carrot to a giant panda.
Hyslop may have been the ubiquitous Scottish minister amongst a galaxy of stars of stage and screen for the last 12 months but the SNP MSP for Linlithgow is quite willing to admit that when it comes to being star struck, getting up close and personal with Yang Guang, Edinburgh’s lady-shy, giant panda, was one of those unexpected joys of the job.
“It was the male one,” she says. “He’s about the same size as my 7-year-old,” she continues laughing. “It was, of course, a real privilege to welcome the pandas to Edinburgh but getting so close and feeding him a carrot was just one of those things I never expected to do.”
Laughter amid vital, cultural exchanges between nations, well sums up Hyslop’s diverse portfolio. From high-brow theatre to gala days and ceilidhs, she says Scotland has a rich and varied culture which is an expression of its identity that is far removed from the dour stereotype sometimes portrayed.
“The title I have now is Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs and the simplest way to describe it is that culture is about identity and who we are and external affairs is about where we are and I am the government minister for promoting Scotland in terms of who we are, where we are and where we want to be, so it is all about linkages and how those integral parts fit together which, in my view, is very naturally.”
As the minister responsible for both culture and external affairs, she has the unique opportunity to view Scots from both inside and out and says that being given that perspective to see ourselves as others see us, has only served to strengthen her view that Scotland is ready to be an independent nation.
“People are really interested in Scotland right now, we are a country of huge international interest, and they want to talk to us and when I was in Brussels recently there were people coming up to me all the time and asking what was happening here. There is a genuine curiosity and they want to know more.
“I think this job in particular has reinforced my belief in independence and that Scotland has a role and a place and that we will be well received. We have many friends internationally and we are well regarded, much of that has been based on the contribution of the Scots from the past and if we want to maintain and develop that position then we have to be constantly looking at what we can offer and when Stewart [Stevenson] was in Rio, for instance, he announced a £4m package of funding for mainly sub-Sahara Africa and much of it was for climate justice initiatives.
“We will be able to do far more of that kind of thing as an independent nation. I want Scotland to be able to contribute far more to the world than we currently do and I think that will be the bit that is very special, that we can do much more as an independent nation than we can do now.”
Hyslop is something of a veteran of the independence movement. Although she gently scolds me for saying so, as if it implies she is some wizened, old nationalist, which clearly, she is not. She was a contemporary of former Scottish Labour leader, Wendy Alexander and of shadow local government minister, Sarah Boyack, at Glasgow University but says she found the whole breeding ground for future Labour Party acolytes – the university debating society – a boorish and intimidating environment.
Her political awakening came from more bookish pursuits and her nationalist membership was born out of an intellectual argument which also embraced her socialist values and international outlook. She joined the SNP at university and by 1990 was on the national executive. Now in her late 40s, it’s hard to remember the party without her. But throughout the party’s sometimes turbulent history, she has managed to steer a fairly straight course, not aligning herself to any particular faction, although she is probably seen as being very close to Salmond.
She is a keen advocate of women within the party and bemoans the fact that there are so few women in top jobs generally. She is seen as a modernizer – she took charge of the reform of candidate selection in 1999 and also has a fairly pragmatic approach to how the view of what independence means has moved with the times. She says, simply, that that is a fairly natural state of affairs as situations change. She may not be seen in as dynamic a light as some of her more strident Cabinet colleagues but she is certainly viewed as a capable and energetic politician. She has been in the Parliament since its inception, having been elected as the list MSP for the Lothians in 1999. In opposition, she equipped herself well as the education shadow for four years and when the SNP came into power in 2007, she was the obvious choice to take on the education portfolio.
However, she found her reputation rocked when she was Education Secretary for uncharacteristically losing her cool with councils who were not, as she perhaps saw it, playing the game over reducing class sizes to the desired 18 and later lost that brief in a reshuffle to the more trouble-shooting, Mike Russell. Critics may have rounded on her at the time, seeing her as dogmatic and not sufficiently diplomatic to steer through some difficult initiatives but civil servants have privately praised her approach to both her previous role and her current one.
She was appointed Minister for Culture and External Affairs in December 2009, and helped established the cultural development body, Creative Scotland, in July 2010, as part of the Public Services Reform Act, which while broadly welcomed brought its own challenges. Recent controversy over its current spending plans and priorities has only in the last week found some resolution.
To Hyslop’s credit, she seemed unfazed by being removed from one brief she clearly loved and being put in charge of another but then the culture portfolio allows her to lead on what she sees as being at the heart of what the independence cause is all about – an expression of identity. She is clear that cultural identity fuels political identity and there is perhaps more than a small sense of her just seeing independence as the natural state of affairs; almost as a ‘so what’?
“I think it is part of the Scottish character that our politics are not just about political parties and it is more about a sense of self that Scots have and while we are not a one-size-fits-all nation in cultural terms by any means, we are a nation that values cultural expression in all its shapes and forms and I have learnt that more in this post, interestingly, not from speaking to people inside Scotland but from speaking to people from outside. International visitors say to me that Scotland is a country that values its culture and that is something that other nations recognise in us that we don’t always necessarily see in ourselves.”
In August, Hyslop will host the first International Cultural Summit in the Scottish Parliament which will bring together more than 40 culture ministers from countries across the globe to discuss among other things international collaboration in the arts, challenges about new technologies and what that means for arts and also culture and cultural diplomacy On that note; I wonder how she feels as the minister responsible for external affairs to hear some of the current pejorative language around the euro crisis and the tendency to blame individual countries for another’s plight.
“That worries me and we have already seen that in the chamber and every politician, UK or Scottish, government or opposition, has responsibility to our international friends and on a number of occasions I have had to cringe and been severely embarrassed by the language used. I think we must conduct our debates in a way that is not insulting to our friends and neighbours and we are perfectly capable of doing that.”
Hyslop sometimes speaks like a mother reminding a child how to behave and that’s because she is. With three children, she juggles a demanding career with the claims made on her by her home life but she is quick to dismiss the idea that she is Superwoman, ‘far from it’, she says. But it is her children that keep Hyslop’s politics grounded in reality. Her two older ones were just three and 18 months and the youngest still to be conceived, never mind born, when she was first elected. They have known little else than a mum in the public eye and it’s little wonder that her then three-year-old son, when asked at nursery to draw a picture of Mummy, proudly drew a piece of art with his mum’s face smiling out of a TV screen.
When I interviewed her as Education Secretary, she said that at the centre of her approach to the brief was a child in her mind’s eye. At the time, she had one child in nursery, one in primary and another going into secondary, offering her a convenient domestic microcosm reflecting her portfolio.
Now she talks about her youngest son’s interest in brass bands, a daughter that does ballet and an older son who acts, makes films and plays the saxophone. She sees at first hand that participating in the arts is ‘good for the soul’ and this is something she is keen to promote.
Early intervention was a key plank of Hyslop’s approach to the future of education and her view is the same about the arts. She sees all government portfolios as cross cutting and believes that encouraging an early interest in the arts in its broadest sense from town galas to operas offers an important cultural grounding but also enhances physical and mental wellbeing, can aid in the process of the rehabilitation of offenders, contribute enormously to the economy and ultimately make a nation more rounded. She undoubtedly believes that culture should be a vehicle to change lives rather than just offer an opportunity to watch a nice play but, I ask her, how do you address that commonly held view that culture is elitist and ‘not for me’?
“I think that’s a challenge,” she says. “It’s one of the things I am discussing with our cultural conveners in local authorities, and remember, councils spend collectively more than we do as a government on the arts. Participation is a problem and one of the key bits of research we have done showed that youngsters would be audiences of the future if they had been taken to see it when they were children. The research also showed us that regardless of income and background, if youngsters had participated in the arts at school then they were three times more likely to be in audiences as adults. That gives us a big steer as policy makers in planning for audiences of the future.
“Participation is key and we are even changing our National Performance Framework so that performances at a gala day are as much [about] being part of culture as the national performances, clearly there are huge differences in quality but it is still participating in creative lives.”
The Culture and External Affairs brief clearly stimulates something in Hyslop that is intuitive and reflective of her gut feelings, it is what she is about and how her politics, view of independence and the world have been shaped. Nowhere was that more elegantly expressed than at the party conference last year when she gave one of the most rousing and well received speeches of the weekend as she welcomed diplomatic representatives from more than 20 countries at the event.
“Culture is the medium by which nations talk unto nations – and Scotland has been talking loud and clear of late,” she said. “Today and every day, Scotland is building relationships with other nations. In Europe and beyond, we are working to have our voice heard. We have built business, tourism, education and cultural links with a whole host of countries.
“We hosted a visit to Scotland by Chinese Vice Premier Li focused on our renewable energy strengths where he also confirmed that Scotch Whisky would be given protection in China, and that in future, only whisky made in Scotland would be permitted to be called ‘Scotch’ – vital to this export market.
“We believe that Scotland should be an independent state and we recognise the responsibilities that we have to the wider world. We are committed to helping alleviate poverty in developing countries and supporting the international community in times of disaster.
“Our international development funding has more than doubled since 2007 to £9m per year, reflecting the internationalist outlook of this party and I can confirm that it will be maintained at this level and will not be cut. Our unique approach to international development is contributing to the Millennium Development Goals, making a real difference to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
“Conference,” she continued, “we are an innovative people. And the Scotland we seek to create is a place of innovation, of creative solutions. We have the rare opportunity to start afresh.”
It was a speech that seemed to come from the heart and reach out to Scotland and beyond. Hyslop was making the point that Scotland could be independent but still be part of a global community which meant having responsibility not just to Scots but to others. It was a speech that touched all the bases in terms of her government responsibilities and I ask her how she sees culture fitting into the independence debate.
“Our independence discussions will reflect the Scotland that we are and if there is an acknowledgment that culture plays a big part of what we are then it will be part and parcel of the discussions.
“I got a call yesterday from someone who wants me to go and visit an exhibition about independence in the Borders and so for them, it is about expression through poetry and songs and writing and some people will find the root of expression through that way and others will see it through the economic arguments, the better-off arguments.
“There will be your vision of independence and there will be mine and people will have a vision based on what matters most to them and if your thinking is that everything is judged on the economy then your vision will be based on that and that is what matters to you but the point is, we shape it ourselves.
“There are certain things that bind the Scottish people together in terms of values; we want a public health service, we believe in free education, and in terms of international affairs and in peace and reconciliation, we try and help provide the opportunity for international dialogue. There are things we can do but we could do more.
“We will deliver a white paper that will provide us with the platform to take us up to and through independence but the longer term of Scotland will not be down to one person or one party, it will be all of us collectively and that is a big concept and perhaps, people would have better discourse and debate if those fairly fundamental points of the debate were considered and thought about more.
“For my part, I see the impact you can make on people’s lives with culture and if you can change people’s lives with culture, you can change the world, and on that basis, independence will be easy…”