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Tolerance and respect must guide nationality debates

The debate sparked by the author Alasdair Gray's recent comments about ''settlers and colonists'' caught fire because culture goes to the heart of how Scotland defines and perceives itself.

That debates needs to be framed in the context of a number of important principles.

The first of these is that jobs in the cultural sphere – indeed in every sphere – should be awarded to the best candidate, irrespective of race, nationality, religion or sex.

The idea that there should be a quota system, a nationality test or positive discrimination in favour of Scots is abhorrent.

The second is that Scotland is and should remain a country that welcomes those who decide to make their home here, no matter where they were born.

Alasdair Gray, of course, is not a racist. That much is clear from the controversial essay that sparked the controversy. We may regret some of the language he chose to use, but there is no evidence that he believes a persona's ability is influenced by his or her birthplace or racial profile. Indeed, he makes clear that he believes many of those from outside our borders who now live in Scotland have made serious contributions to the wellbeing of the nation.

There is a seasonal tale that casts valuable light on this issue. Asked about their real nationality, a Scot who happened to be born in England responded that Jesus Christ was born in a stable but that did not make him a cow.

The questions posed by Gray and in this issue of the Sunday Herald by James Kelman are particularly difficult to explore within the world of the arts.

Art, or course, should respect no boundaries, be they national or ideological. Art by its nature is free. Although it may be rooted in a place, it transcends geography and speaks instead to a shared human experience.

Nevertheless, there is a train of thought in Scotland that believes Gray and Kelman have a point and that, in the run-up to a referendum that will throw many issues of national identity into the spotlight, that point needs to be addressed.

The question arising from the current debate can be boiled down to this: is Scotland's cultural life being stunted because, at the present time, so many of its cultural institutions are run by people who were not born here?

That case is at best unproven. The National Theatre of Scotland, for instance, has produced one unarguable classic in Black Watch, a work that could only have been produced in Scotland although it deals with universal issues such as war, tradition, masculinity and community.

It is true that Creative Scotland recently became unstuck, its chief toppled by an artists' revolt. That conflict could certainly be put down to a clash of cultures, but not one of national cultures. It is now generally accepted that Creative Scotland's perceived fondness for business language and concepts was at odds with the prevailing culture of the artistic community.

Kelman's argument moves to more ambiguous territory when he suggests that some of Scotland's works of art are perceived as being culturally inferior. This is an attitude held by many Scots themselves.

Indeed, it should be pointed out, as Gray himself did in his essay, that those in charge of Scottish cultural institutions were appointed by Scots. There are a number of possible explanations for that.

One is that the Scottish candidates were simply not up to the job. Another is that those Scots capable of working at that level are already doing so elsewhere. Yet another could be the suspicion that the interviewing panels might suffer from an inferiority complex that judges Scots who have not established a reputation outside the country as being somehow less talented than those who swim in larger waters.

So where should the debate go from here? Most certainly not to a pro-Scottish quota system or to a suspicion of those from outside Scotland who currently work here.

But there is a case for fostering pride in the achievements of our artists and for creating a climate where new world-class works of art can be created and celebrated.

This will not be the last such debate as the referendum comes ever closer. There will be more discussions about national identity with the potential to move into dangerous territory. It is important that the language used in these debates is restrained and that the principles of tolerance and acceptance are underlined rather than undermined.

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