With the UK General Election next week, what are the country’s political parties saying about the arts?
The biography of Britain’s outgoing culture secretary, Karen Bradley, makes no mention of either culture or the arts. This ought to be surprising, but it is in keeping with the philistine trend in government, in which the arts are regarded purely in utilitarian terms (their value calculated by revenue alone). The role of culture secretary, a portfolio shared with media and sport, is often given to ambitious junior politicians with a taste for austerity: Bradley is a chartered accountant, while her three predecessors all trained as economists.
A general election offers an opportunity for politicians to articulate a vision of society where culture thrives. Labour’s victory in 1997 was met by enthusiasm among many in the artistic community, but despite substantial investment, the attitude in government remained focused on utility – how the arts could be justified, whether for social cohesion or tourist attraction. Senior politicians tend to regard culture as an opportunity to tout their populist credentials; who can forget Gordon Brown’s clumsy conversion to the Arctic Monkeys?
For the first time in two decades, there is cause for optimism. One week after the launch of their general election manifesto, Labour unveiled a dedicated culture manifesto in Hull on 22 May 2017 – an event sadly overshadowed by the bombing in Manchester. The appeal of the document, entitled ‘A Creative Future For All’, lies not merely in its policy promises, although these are significant, but in a radical change to the language and philosophy of cultural policy.
The proposals are relatively ambitious: an arts pupil premium, drawn from an additional £160 million per year, aimed at ensuring every student in England can take part in drama and dance, can learn an instrument, and has regular access to a theatre, gallery or museum. The manifesto pledges to set up a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund, to be administered by the Arts Council, to upgrade infrastructure and invest in ‘creative clusters’ nationwide.
The manifesto also includes a set of important structural aims that may be tricky to implement. Acknowledging the ‘culture of low or no pay’ among performers, which invariably offers greater opportunities to the children of wealthy families, the party promises to work with trade unions and employers to agree ‘sector-specific advice and guidelines on pay and employment standards’. In addition, the manifesto cites ‘the serious concern about the ‘value gap’ between producers of creative content and the digital services that profit from its use’, promising a review of the remuneration for artists in the digital age. More viable is a commitment to nurturing diversity in the film industry and on public and commercial broadcasters.
Labour’s manifesto is boldest in its challenge to the generational consensus about how to evaluate the arts. Since being elected leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has spoken of the ‘broader, intrinsic worth’ of the arts, which enrich us in ‘intimate, often immeasurable ways’. He has critiqued government methodologies which seek to follow ‘the narrow, ruthlessly instrumentalist approach of the Thatcher governments’, and signify ‘a dangerous retreat into a callous commercialisation of every sphere of our lives’. . . ‘access to culture is vital for the emotional and intellectual growth of our people’. . .
. . . Like Labour, the Liberal Democrats promise to protect arts subjects in the school curriculum . . .