ANOTHER “national cultural strategy” summit in Scotland, this time at the quite glorious Glasgow Women’s Library, in a room drawn from the firmament of Scottish arts. I’m there as a table facilitator, and I find myself chatting to someone on the government side (no names or functions, we’re all under Chatham House rules). Our blether is all very pleasant and exploratory, until I am stopped short by this statement: “Everybody has to realise: we can’t change the structures and we don’t have any money left.”

In its combination of elements, this is probably the worst thing to say to an artist (which I still am). It implies both the perpetual stretch of the begging bowl, and also an unrealistic radicalism about how culture might systemically change things. However, it was very helpful in structuring my thoughts as to the question of what a “national cultural strategy” might actually get strategic about. The first would be to nail definitively the importance – indeed, centrality – of arts and culture for the economic progress of Scotland. And the second would be the role of arts and culture as a resource for imagining different Scotlands, whether to help us adapt to new circumstances, or to transform our own.

The best current arguments for support of arts and culture, and the extraordinary returns on investment, are coming from those who face its cancellation. Trump announced a few months ago that he intended to abolish the National Endowment For The Arts, the US’s already paltry equivalent to European public funding bodies.

Loading article content

In April, on the steps of New York’s City Hall, Talking Head (and son of Dumbarton) David Byrne relayed the most concrete numbers he could find about the return on investment that arts-and-culture spend brings. In the US, not-for-profit arts – excluding Broadway shows, pop concerts, video games, movies or the art world – generated $135.2 billion of economic activity. Add in the commercial sector – which, of course, exists in symbiosis with subsidised culture – and the figure rises to $704bn in 2014, which was 4.23 per cent of GDP. Byrne said: “The arts and cultural sector contribute more to our national economy than do the construction, agriculture, mining, utilities, and travel and tourism sectors.”

The numbers I can find for Scotland are less impressive, but not unrelated. Culture Counts, the Scottish arts advocacy website, says: “Culture provides approximately 174,000 jobs in Scotland, 6.6 per cent of the total jobs figure. The arts and creative industries in Scotland have an estimated economic impact of £3.690bn in GVA.”

“Gross value added” captures much more about production than consumption in an economy – and is thus more useful to public agencies when they want to target incentives or subsidies. Accordingly, Creative Scotland tells us: “Creative industries are now larger than life sciences and sustainable tourism in terms of GVA, and employs more people than the energy sector.”

So, arts and culture is a serious chunk of the economy. Some of the explanations are obvious.

One of Byrne’s reports talks about “event-related expenditure” – that is, transport, meals, accommodation, and other spending triggered by a great show or festival (arts tourists spend more on their trips than non-arts equivalents). Arts organisations themselves are strong users of nearby suppliers and tradespeople, which keeps money in the local economy. From these angles, the “festivalising” of Scotland in the last few years – no week unscheduled, no angle unexplored – is hardly the result of a “subsidy of the luvvies”.

It’s actually a remarkably successful generator of demand in the Scottish economy. A report from the Local Government Association in 2013 identified that for every £1 invested in the arts, £4 was returned to local economies.

There’s also the economic benefit from the increase in wellbeing – which measures out in improving health and education indicators. Byrne cites a report from the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, which shows that “the relative higher presence of cultural resources in lower-income neighbourhoods is linked with serious health, safety, and education benefits”.

In a New York City study, there was a 14 per cent decrease in child abuse and neglect, an 18 per cent decrease in the crime rate, and a 17 to 18 per cent increase in students scoring at the highest level on standardised maths and English tests. Byrne notes sharply: “Other ways of making these improvements in our communities are much more expensive – and often not as effective.”

In Scotland, Culture Counts says that: “Those who attend a cultural place or event are more than 59 per cent more likely to report good health compared to those who did not, and are one-and-a-half times more likely to have reported high life satisfaction.”

From the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, we know that to improve the “spirit levels” of a society is to significantly reduce stress and depression, and the physical ill-health they cause. For any government mandarin seeking to lighten pressure on their social and welfare costs, an increased investment in arts and culture would seem to be most strategic indeed.

But this triggers my second strategic emphasis: how arts and culture can indeed challenge existing structures of power and money. Before I even stretch for the utopian heights, let me stay with the bottom line.

An article in this month’s Harvard Business Review, entitled Liberal Arts Majors Are The Future Of The Tech Industry”, talks about the “deep cultural knowledge [tech] businesses need” – which comes “not from numbers-driven market research but from a humanities-driven study of texts, languages and people”.

The piece reviews the brilliantly titled Cents And Sensibility by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. The authors argue that economic models: “tend to ignore three things: culture’s effect on decision-making, the usefulness of stories in explaining people’s actions, and ethical considerations.”

Their solution is literature, and great literature at that. “When has a social scientist’s model or case study drawn a person as vividly as Tolstoy drew Anna Karenina?”

So here’s a small memo inserted into the gap between creative Scotland and Scottish enterprise (with either a small or large “c” and “e”): The latter may find in the former powerful indicators as to what human beings really want from the furious pursuit of scientific and technology innovation. And getting those “humanities” right may be the most sustainable input to business growth. But you can’t stop artists asking questions … and as Scotland faces powerful mega-trends – in climate change, automation, migration, longevity and diversity – it is extremely important that the arts are in the healthiest conditions to ask those questions.

My table was composed of high-end artists and senior executives, all of a certain age. The funniest moment was when we started to talk about how skilfully we had all played the benefit and allowance system in the 1970s and 80s, in order to keep bands and projects going. “And here we are now, paying our taxes!”

one character said.

Yes, we need indy, so we can make fully integrated policy decisions. But alongside that, let’s experiment with some of the powers we can wrest from Westminster, welfare being one of them. What new structures can we create which might support more free, everyday, society-enriching creativity, one that all these old punks enjoyed in their youth, and which is even more possible in these networked and digital days?

For post-capitalist utopians like me, this would be a small step in the right direction. We want to embrace the next wave of automation, as a chance to redistribute both wealth and time. The great prophet of this moment, the French philosopher Andre Gorz, talked about shifting from a “work-based” to a “culture-based society”. We can, with solid and deliberate moves, begin to make that shift in Scotland.

There were good discussions at our table on the healthy tensions in our definitions of “culture”. How can it be both heritage and anchor in a runaway world, and also the means whereby we step into the shoes of anyone in that same world?

“Maybe doing culture, working out this complex stuff, is what Scotland could do best of all,” mused one great makar to me. This is the kind of strategic talk we need about Scotland and culture.

Let the money and structures follow that.