Are there any sacred cows the SNP is prepared to slaughter in order to help reduce public expenditure?
The latest in a long line of untouchables would appear to be free access to the National Galleries, the National Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden – all of them in Edinburgh. “We are not in favour of admission charges” says the Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop MSP.
Phew, replied the citizens of Edinburgh, for they are the ones who most benefit from the current arrangements. And as one of them, I too have enjoyed having such treasures on my doorstep, particularly on long, dismal winter weekends when they are warm and welcoming palaces of discovery to bored, cooped up weans and their suffering parents. The burd is a very big fan, for a whole host of reasons, of each of these national institutions but I’m less convinced of my right to enter them for free.
For if they cannot charge admission, cuts will have to be found from somewhere. The Botanics suggest reducing the amount spent on overseas conservation and in diminishing its educational programme. So, we get to keep our park, while the world’s flora becomes less safe and the global reputation of the Botanics suffers in the process. The National Galleries and Museum might also have to make such cutbacks, reducing the opportunity for schoolchildren – in particular, the ones that cannot rely on their parents to take them – to widen their cultural horizons. Free admission appears to widen access but continuing the policy when money is tight may well limit equality of opportunity.
Moreover, a policy of free admission undoubtedly benefits Edinburgh residents disproportionately, despite every taxpayer in the land contributing to it. Families living in Edinburgh are more likely to visit, more often, than the family that has to make a 200 mile round trip in order to have a day out. Yet they are paying the same amount as Edinburgh folk to create the government grant. Why should people all over Scotland effectively subsidise Edinburgh? Or rather, should continue to do so, for the policy actually only applies to the capital city.
Take the National Museum, or more accurately, the National Museums of Scotland:
- the Royal Museum (currently closed for refurbishment but free when open);
- the new National Museum (free except for special exhibitions);
- the National War Museum (situated in Edinburgh Castle, entry to which you have to pay for as part of the admission charge to the castle);
- the National Museum of Costume (at the wonderful Shambellie House in Dumfries which charges admission for everyone over 12);
- the National Museum of Rural Life (based rather bizarrely in very unrural East Kilbride which charges for everyone over 12); and
- the National Museum of Flight (in East Lothian, home to Concorde, and which costs the most to visit)
A similar situation exists for the Botanics – only the Edinburgh main site is free. To visit Port Logan garden near Stranraer, Dawyck garden near Peebles or Benmore garden in Argyll, you have to pay.
Another of the arguments for continuing the policy of free entry is to attract tourists. Yet, as someone who occasionally visits other cities in the world, I struggle to recall not having to pay to visit anyone else’s national art gallery or museum, and I’m pretty sure we paid to get into the wonderful Kew Gardens in London. As a tourist, you factor the costs of these visits into your trip. Having gone to the expense of travelling to another country or city, few arrive with little money to spend on enjoying the cultural delights. I might feel slightly less inclined to hand over my hard earned dosh though, if admission fees were payable only by visitors, one suggestion being mooted to offset budget cuts to our Edinburgh institutions.
However you look at it, the proposal to maintain free admission does not stack up. It is a luxury we simply cannot afford in the current climate, not least when people in other parts of Scotland already have to pay for access to their offshoot of these institutions. Why should local communities forego essential services in order for Edinburgh residents – and tourists – to keep their “wide cultural access”?
If the Scottish Government has its way, Edinburgh won’t have had its tea then. But there is a way for its residents to salve their consciences and put something back, to try and prevent the likes of school visit programmes being cut. All three institutions are in fact charities and not quangoes. Government grant only covers part of their costs; the rest is fundraised. All three welcome donations and offer many ways to contribute, regularly and occasionally. Just be sure to claim the Gift Aid on any sum given: levering as much extra cash as possible from the UK Treasury into Scottish budgets is something we can all agree is a worthwhile thing to do.