Magazine article The Spectator

Interview

Magazine article The Spectator

Interview

Article excerpt

Tiffany Jenkins talks to Scotland's culture minister about the new 'creative industry' quango

The unexpected hit of this year's Edinburgh Book Festival was Mike Russell MSP, the SNP minister for culture, external affairs and the constitution. Surprisingly for a leading Scottish Nationalist, there was no mention of Rabbie Burns. Nor was it a populist pitch - bigging up bestselling Scottish writers like Irvine Welsh or Ian Rankin. Instead, he spoke of his love for the Chilean communist writer Pablo Neruda, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and even that pillar of Victorian imperialism, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Whatever you think of his politics, you can't call Mike Russell parochial.

Russell's cultural hinterland helps to explain why he is winning over the Scottish arts community, a group suspicious of politicians, especially nationalist ones, whose idea of culture may well be a tartan kailyard of bagpipes and Burns. But it's been an uphill struggle. When appointed at the start of the year, Russell inherited Creative Scotland, a much-maligned project which - by merging the Scottish Arts Council with Scottish Screen - will create an all-purpose 'creative industry' quango when it is finally formed through parliamentary process in 2010. He also found himself a frontman for Homecoming Scotland (a year-long event devised to boost tourism by encouraging the Scottish diaspora to revisit the homeland), which was lambasted for relying on images of whisky and golf.

And, if that wasn't enough, Russell is picking a fight with Gordon Brown by calling for greater immigration to Scotland. 'Our view is that Scotland is not full up, ' he states, enthusing that 'the country is enriched by bringing in new skills and talent'. Entry for cultural visitors, however, is becoming increasingly difficult because of the new rules governing immigration. For example, in October, the Canadian artist Joseph Naytowhow was invited by the Scottish Storytelling Centre to perform in Edinburgh. But he was denied entry to the UK when he arrived at Heathrow.

In August, the Borders Agency refused to admit a pipe band from Pakistan, leaving them unable to compete in Glasgow's World Pipe Band Championships, despite having attended for years. Russell thinks the rules could be made more flexible to cater for performers such as these.

He wants to make sure, though, that Scottish artists get a 'fair crack of the whip' through, for example, the Edinburgh Festival Expo Fund. …

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