Unelected Scotland

Unelected Scotland
Kenneth Roy, Scottish Review

Karen Carlton, the commissioner for public appointments in Scotland, is said to be ‘passionate’ about the value of people who hold such appointments and their ‘contribution to the quality of life in Scotland’. She does not decide who gets what; that is the responsibility of ministers. While the politicians have a duty to make the process ‘open and transparent’ and to ensure that only people of eligible skills are appointed, Karen Carlton concentrates on her ‘monitoring’ role and, in her own words, ‘on working to find ways to encourage a much wider group of Scottish citizens to contribute to the well-being of the nation’. This has been her professional vocation for more than five years. On present evidence, the commissioner has a very long way still to go.

In this first week of the Edinburgh Festival, it is enlightening to inquire into the ‘Scottish citizens’ who call the shots in the arts in Scotland. In Ms Carlton’s defence, it has to be said that some were appointed before she arrived on the scene, although others joined under her watch. But if the commissioner wishes to encourage ‘a much wider group of Scottish citizens’ on the boards of our national arts organisations, she is in effect anticipating a revolution.

The three bodies of which we mainly speak, all publicly appointed, are the Scottish Arts Council, the National Galleries of Scotland, and the National Museums of Scotland. The museums employ 443 people and receive grant-aid of £33m a year; the galleries employ 329 people and receive £18m from the public purse; the Scottish Arts Council, with only 98 on its payroll, is the smallest employer of the three but the daddy of them all in terms of funding – a whopping £62m. These organisations, then, employ a total of 870 people – amounting to a significant Scottish enterprise – and receive more than £113m a year in subsidies from the Scottish Government. Who disburses that impressive loot on their behalf?
Thirty-seven people bear the ultimate responsibility – the public appointees on the boards of the three organisations. There are 11 on the Scottish Arts Council, 12 on the National Galleries of Scotland, 14 on the National Museums of Scotland. Their identities are not as well known as they should be; and we need also to examine to what extent they reflect Scottish society.

Their first and perhaps most striking characteristic is how many belong to what might be loosely termed the business world. The chair of the National Galleries is described by the Scottish Government as a financier; among the others we find the director of an investment trust, a managing director, three consultants, a solicitor, a banker and a chartered accountant. You would expect the National Galleries to have non-executive financial and legal expertise at its disposal; but nine out of a board of 12 seems disproportionate. No doubt it will be argued that many if not all of the nine are keenly interested in art, perhaps even knowledgeable on the subject. But still the composition of the board seems too respectful of business. It is a Scottish weakness.

The board of the National Museums is a little more heterogeneous. It includes a medical doctor, someone concerned with ‘science engagement policy’, a retired professor of Scottish history, a director of lifelong learning, a scientific director, a retired lecturer and a ‘freelance equality officer’. However, seven of the 14 have business/financial backgrounds. Thus, between the two organisations, 16 of the 26 non-execs are from the same narrow sector of Scottish life.

How representative is this? The simple answer is: not at all.
Next, there is the question of where these 26 people live. Seventeen are based in Edinburgh itself or close to that city. The capital-centric nature of the appointments to our national galleries and national museums inevitably means that the majority of the Scottish population is under-represented. For example, on the board of the National Museums, there is only one person resident in Glasgow, a populous city 50 minutes away by train. Her name is Lesley Hart. On the board of the National Galleries, there is no one from Glasgow, a city with a distinguished tradition in the visual arts; I would have included Dr Ruth Wishart, a journalist, but she gives her residence as Kilcreggan.

The 11-person board of the Scottish Arts Council is in one sense healthier than the others: it does include several people of an appropriate professional background. Glancing at this board, you might conclude that it had something to do with the arts, whereas the same would not be true of the other boards. But it shares with the museums and galleries one of the most glaring failings of public appointments to the arts in Scotland – an extreme gender imbalance. Of the 14 individuals on the National Museums’ board, no fewer than 10 are men; of the 12 on the National Galleries’ board, nine are men; and of the 11 on the Arts Council, eight are men. Thus, in the brave new Scotland of equal opportunities, and in a sector where you would expect an impeccable gender balance, the three organisations for which there is a system of public appointment are governed by 27 men and 10 women – a split of 73%/27%.

Yet, although there are so few women, one – Ray Macfarlane, a banker – has a place on both the Scottish Arts Council and the board of the National Galleries; so the number of women across the three organisations is reduced to nine. More remarkable still, it would be wrong to assume that this pitifully small group has been recruited exclusively from within Scotland. One member of the Scottish Arts Council, Dinah Caine, chief executive of ‘a skills council for the creative media industries’, lives and works in London and, on first perusal of her CV, it is impossible to discern any Scottish connection other than her membership of our national arts funding body. Why is she there? Whatever her merits – and I confidently suppose they are considerable – I refuse to believe that there are not many able women, actually living in Scotland, who would do the job equally well.

Ethnically and sociologically, the 37 make a mockery of the Scottish Parliament’s commitments to diversity. I counted one who may be from an ethnic minority background. The rest are not only predominantly male and from Edinburgh, but white, middle-class and…I was about to add elderly. But that is only a hunch; on the limited information available it is impossible to work out an average age. Dr Richard Holloway, who is chair of the Scottish Arts Council, chair of Scottish Screen, interim chair of Creative Scotland and guest director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is approaching his 76th birthday. I suspect the average is quite a bit lower, but not spectacularly so.

The commissioner for public appointments insists that she is ‘working to find ways to encourage a much wider group of Scottish citizens to contribute to the well-being of the nation’. A laudable aim, yet the dire state of public appointments to the arts suggests, either that the commissioner is failing in her objectives, or that there is a lack of political will to make it happen. Meanwhile, if you would like to contribute to Scottish life through a public appointment in the arts, I offer the following elementary advice: be white; be male; be middle-class; be fairly old; be in finance; and be from Edinburgh.