If ever fine words buttered no parsnips, then Jack McConnell’s famous St Andrew’s Day speech is prime ungarnished root. I was fortunate enough to be present at the First Minister’s address at the Royal Scottish Academy ofMusic and Drama. It was a well-trailed occasion and the guest list included many significant players in the arts.
Far from preaching to the converted, McConnell must have been conscious of a healthy level of scepticism. The third annual report on the progress of the National Cultural Strategy had just been published and progress on its limited set of objectives could hardly have been described as swift. The St Andrew’s Day speech was McConnell’s first major pronouncement on the arts and it needed to set out an agenda that developed the mom and apple-pie enthusiasms of the strategy into something that more closely resembled policy.
Most who heard it were pleased. The examples of good practice and international successes which McConnell cited showed a personal touch as well as a well-researched brief. His vision of the place of the arts in the development and promotion of Scotland was enthusiastic and appealing. The idea of building a framework of entitlements for every citizen, making opportunities for artistic appreciation and personal development unalienable rights in a self-governing Scotland, was exciting.
That was more than three years ago. Ten days ago I was at the Scottish Parliament for the launch of the Scottish Jazz Federation, an umbrella group for many jazz interests and a lobbying body under the new chairmanship of broadcaster and trombonist Dave Bachelor.
Bachelor knows how to push political buttons. Much of what he said chimed well with the priorities outlined in 2003. He spoke of every region having an ensemble to match RichardMichael’s Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra. He cited statistics showing that jazz (always seen as a minority music) was “surprisingly” popular and referenced a heritage of prominent players that stretched back into the first half of the last century. He noted how our musicians were significant ambassadors, regularly selling Scotland abroad. Saxophonist Tommy Smith followed up with a refined version of his longstanding argument for the establishment of a Scottish jazz academy.
Both of them played second fiddle, however, to the music, including the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Tommy Smith’s Youth Jazz Orchestra, and the small groups of Colin Steele, Fionna Duncan and Paul Towndrow. The MSPs should know what they missed, because while it was staged for their benefit, their attendance was poor. Two days later, Patricia Ferguson announced the publication of the draft Culture (Scotland) Bill, which contained no surprises and nothing in the way of exciting initiatives. This week, one plank of that legislation, “cultural entitlements”, was clothed in the bare flesh of the Pathfinders Scheme and a miserly £1.2m of executive and local authority cash. That was much trumpeted, of course, while extra cash to the RSNO and to the Edinburgh Festival to clear a deficit for the incoming director, was only grudgingly revealed instead of being recognised as worthy expenditure. Government’s attitude to the arts remains unreconstructed.
During the first week of the New Year, three of Scotland’s acclaimed jazz groups – Colin Steele’s Stramash, Trio AAB, and pianist David Milligan’s Trio – will be playing at a festival in Germany. Their performances will surely enhance Scotland’s standing, but I’d be surprised if any MSP is aware of them. Equally, it seems unlikely that they had to turn down gigs at home to take up the invitation.