Parliamentary sketch: MSPs grapple with intangible questions of culture

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 6 April 2018 in Comment

Parliamentary sketch: A debate on UNESCO sees MSPs hold a discussion on culture

It was a Thursday afternoon in Holyrood and Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, was trying to solve a murder. David Rizzio’s murder, to be precise.

Across the chamber, MSPs gathered in hushed silence. Don’t look suspicious. Don’t make eye contact.

Of course, normally one would use a drawing room to reveal a good murder, or maybe an old library, but Hyslop was obviously having to make do with the resources available to her.

Starting off thoughtfully, with a slightly rambling approach, obviously modelled on TV’s Columbo, she asked MSPs to consider the buildings around them. “How many of us can really say that what resonates most is the architecture, the construction techniques or the types of stone?” she asked.

Don’t answer that, it’s a trick. Only some sort of weirdo would name a particular type of stone that resonates with them. Even Stewart Stevenson stayed quiet. “They’re important, of course, but the attraction of those buildings has as much to do with what happened in them, the stories behind their construction, the people who stayed in them and the things that they did.”

The stories of what happened in them. The things they did. Everyone could see where this was going. Murder.

She cut to the chase. “When we tour Holyrood Palace,” she said, pausing, “we are invited to consider the fate of David Rizzio…”

MSPs looked away. Ash Denham, sitting behind the cabinet secretary, appeared to have dropped something, forcing her to duck below her lectern and stay out of sight.

But it’s unlikely that Edinburgh Eastern MSP Ash Denham was responsible for David Rizzio’s murder, not least because it happened 450 years ago. As a defence it may have been circumstantial, but it seemed enough to clear her. No, Hyslop pointed the blame squarely at Lord Darnley – Mary Queen of Scots’ husband – who, she suggested, was “allegedly” behind the killing of the Queen’s courtier. Allegedly was smart – no one wants a legal battle after falsely accusing someone of murder.

So why were they talking about murders that happened in buildings? There was a good reason. Or a reason, at least.

The debate was aimed at showing support for the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, you see. And, to be fair, if anyone knows about the concept of intangible culture, it’s the members of the Scottish Parliament.

After all, what could be more abstract than the cultural references regularly unleashed by MSPs? But the point was that culture isn’t just about old buildings. It’s also about language, art and traditional crafts. And murders, apparently. But so far, the UK has refused to ratify the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which means examples in Britain lack protection.

Rachael Hamilton was also unhappy about the UK Government’s position. Looking around her, she asserted that “Culture, like food, must remain accessible to and enjoyable for everyone”, before adding, “Indeed, what is better than combining our culture with food?”

“A delicious fish supper reminds us all of Scottish haddock and our rich fishing industry,” Hamilton claimed. “Haggis is eaten across the country and has us all licking our lips,” she alleged, “and cock-a-leekie soup warms and comforts our souls.”

How she chose these foods was unclear. If she wanted an example of growing culture on food then an old yoghurt probably would have been a better choice.

But after that the references came thick and fast. Ash Denham – who had yet to be accused of murder – talked about driving cattle through bonfires and climbing Arthur’s Seat to wash in the morning dew so she could achieve eternal youth. Maurice Corry discussed the efficacy of using Highland games to find the strongest people in Scotland. Kate Forbes made her speech in Gaelic, even handling a question from Stewart Stevenson (also in Gaelic) about how Google works, without breaking stride. That was one of the few bits that made sense.

Tory MSP Brian Whittle, who, as ever, just looked pleased to have been allowed inside the chamber, said he was happy the debate was taking place because it “gives me latitude to mention whatever I like”.

At no point had anyone said the debate gave him latitude to mention whatever he liked. “In music,” he began, “it encompasses for me everything from my favourite bagpipe piece, ‘Highland Cathedral’, through to that little rock band from Glasgow, AC/DC. I know that we are all ‘Thunderstruck’, but therein lies the beauty of the word ‘intangible’. How far back do we have to go to claim culture?”

“Who remembers playing elastics in the school playground?” he asked. No one responded. “I think that health and safety would have a field day with that one,” he mused, to himself.

It was really getting out of hand by this point. So what effect did the whole thing have on culture? Well, apart from Forbes giving Gaelic a public show of support, it was hard to say. But then that’s culture for you: intangible. They never really solved the murder, though.

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