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by Joan McAlpine
03 October 2023
Culture is not a luxury to be sacrificed in tough times

A torchlight procession makes its way up Calton Hill at Hogmanay | Credit: Alamy

Culture is not a luxury to be sacrificed in tough times

The Scottish summer is never much to shout about. But come winter, we shine. From St Andrew’s Night, through Hogmanay to Burns’ birthday, Scotland offers an escape from the perils of seasonal depression. We may lack the recognition of statehood, but we articulate our place in the world very effectively when the nights draw in. Our songs, stories, celebrations, and cultural signifiers make Scotland a strong global brand. This is why the decision of the Scottish Government to completely remove funding from the Winter Festival Programme makes no sense. 

The first SNP government was quick to see the potential of landmark cultural events to raise our profile, extend the tourism season and support jobs. Shortly after being elected in 2007, the SNP announced a Winter Festivals Programme. Culture minister Linda Fabiani pledged £300,000 for the programme, in addition to £400,000 for St Andrew’s Day itself. It was part of a wider strategy to raise confidence – reflecting that government’s refreshing ambition. 

Fabiani told parliament: “In our manifesto and the 100 days document, we set out our commitment to mobilise Scotland’s national day for the benefit of our economy and country, and to give a boost to our traditional and contemporary culture. 

“Our aim is to raise awareness of the day as a cornerstone of Scotland’s winter festival, building on our success in attracting visitors to join us for Hogmanay. We also want to build on the global reputation of Scotland’s national bard, the excellence of our summer festivals and our incredible scenery.” 

That commitment, to raise global profile through culture, continued under successive ministers and stretched across government departments. In 2009, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Burns was linked to a year-long homecoming event directed at the 25 million-strong global diaspora with Scottish ancestry. Led by the then enterprise minister, Jim Mather, with cross-party support, it spanned culture, innovation and industry, making the economic link yet more explicit.

It is reductive philistinism to suggest culture is a luxury to be sacrificed in tough times – the bread versus circuses argument

In 2019, the government funded the Glasgow University report Robert Burns and the Scottish Economy by Professor Murray Pittock. It calculated the benefit of Burns at £203m, with a further £139.5m contribution to the value of Scotland itself as a brand – and urged the government to build on the bard’s potential, using the example of Mozart who generates £5bn a year for Austria. But the recommendations of that report were never taken forward.

Indeed, an impression has arisen that the government is now somewhat squeamish about being too enthusiastic about our own culture and history. The Robert Burns App, launched for The Homecoming and downloaded by 150,000 people, is no longer supported. Even the delayed 700th birthday of the Declaration of Arbroath at the National Museum of Scotland this summer was low key and short-lived. The financial commitment to the Winter Festival Programme was dropped in 2022, a year after culture minister Jenny Gilruth said it would bring “much-needed brightness and joy to the winter darkness.” 

That decision to switch the lights off was particularly hard on events outside the capital, such as the Big Burns Supper in Dumfries, which were more reliant on EventScotland investment. At the height of lockdown in January 2021, when this festival went fully online, its livestream attracted 300,000 viewers on Burns Night, an impressive reflection of the pulling power of the poet. The government said the decision to pull Winter Festivals funding was “based on the need to focus finite resources in order to mitigate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis”. 

That explanation marks a serious retreat from our understanding of culture as essential to our happiness and wellbeing. It shamefully ignores the contribution of the creative industries to economic prosperity. It is reductive philistinism to suggest culture is a luxury to be sacrificed in tough times – the bread versus circuses argument. It’s not something that would ever have been suggested by Fiona Hyslop, our longest serving culture cabinet secretary.

Given the scale of the cost-of-living crisis, the logic of this argument is to dispense with the entire arts budget and burn the theatres down. For many in the arts, that metaphor is not too wide of the mark. Writing recently in The Scotsman, Julia Amour, Edinburgh’s director of festivals, said the festivals’ public funding has fallen by £5m in real terms since 2010. She complained ministers were more interested in investing in one-off events, when the economic and cultural benefits of homegrown offerings is far greater. The cuts are not confined to festivals.

A £6.6m cut to Creative Scotland’s budget, which had been reversed, was unexpectedly reinstated in September, despite a national culture strategy in 2020 which pledged Scotland would be “a place where culture is valued, protected and nurtured”. 

During the 2014 referendum there was an understanding that confidence is essential to national self-belief. Eroding culture diminishes our faith in ourselves, our country’s standing in the world, and hope of future progress. So there is a political price to pay, at least for the SNP.

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