Just as in May 2015, culture was at the heart of an incoming government in 1997. That year, real political change after eighteen years of Conservative rule was reflected in the spirit of ‘cool Britannia’, a prevailing sense that what Britain had lost in imperial stature it more than made up for in creative cultural innovation, export and fun. Labour’s endorsement of this reinvigorated sense of national identity was best captured in incoming minister Chris Smith’s decision to alter the soberly-titled ‘Department of National Heritage’ to that of ‘Culture, Media and Sport’, explicitly naming these renewed political priorities.
That government made huge advances with its ‘Creative Industries Taskforce’ engaging with a range of stakeholders in established and popular arts and culture, redefining the sort of ‘culture’ that was politically significant under a Labour government. With these priorities in mind, Labour rolled out free entry to some of the greatest national museums and galleries, and insisted upon ‘elite’ institutions such as the Royal Opera House widening their access by selling cheaper tickets with discounted rates.
Just as renowned Labour Arts Minister Jennie Lee argued in the 1960s, this election’s Labour manifesto strongly endorses the importance of arts and culture in defining our ‘common humanity’. But British culture has taken a kicking in recent times, and a new DCMS minister will face several obstacles.
The first, and most significant, is financial. As of 2013, grants to prestigious national institutions such as the British Museum, the Science Museum and the National Gallery had been cut by a quarter in real terms since 2010: furthermore, Arts Council England’s budget has been slashed by 32 per cent between 2010 and 2015, while the British Film Institute has been particularly adversely effected. Though the DCMS survived rumours of abolition in 2013, this already small department has had its staffing cut by over 35 per cent, following a series of voluntary redundancy exercises since 2010.
Meanwhile, local council cuts of 40 per cent since 2010 mean most, smaller local authority museums and arts projects (which are less likely to receive state support or lottery funding) have been severely wounded by reduced DCMS funding. Ever-diminishing local authority finances have seen the arts and heritage services as increasingly discretionary: indeed, councils in Aberdeenshire, Somerset and Westminster have had to cut their arts budgets by 100 per cent.
Alongside these financial obstacles, culture and the arts seem to receding from public view. In schools, it seems that creativity, culture and the arts are being systematically removed from the education system, with severe drops in the number of students taking related GCSE subjects like Drama or Design & Technology. This decline is reflected also at the level of higher education, where cuts to the Arts and Humanities Research Council have seen the number of funded MA courses cut considerably, with serious repercussions. Finally, those participating in arts and culture, whether attending performances, studying related subjects, or participating in activities, remain overwhelmingly middle class and white, in the absence of focused intervention.
The incoming Secretary of State has a firm foundation to begin from, evident in Labour’s commissioning of Leading the Field: A Review of the Creative Industries, a report by John Woodward. There are plenty of excellent ideas which our new minister could implement, from strengthening the leadership role of the DCMS in government to pledging no further departmental cuts in the next parliament. Indeed, Labour’s speeches and pledges on the arts and culture demonstrate a clear appreciation of the social, moral, and economic value of the arts, so far crystallising around several core themes: in creative education and apprenticeships; in government machinery via the creation of the Prime Minister’s Committee on Arts, Culture and the Creative Industries; and in improving participation and access, especially in tackling the spending imbalances between North and South in arts funding (while remaining sensitive to London’s impressive role in generating finances through ‘cultural tourism’). The minister will also need to clarify what sort of ‘interventions’ will be needed in ensuring publicly funded arts are widening access to their benefits and services.
Putting all of the above in practice will certainly reassert arts and culture at the centre of government, education and society, making the DCMS brief central, and not simply an optional extra for government, as it has been treated under the previous administration.
Ho wever, what this approach is missing is the establishment of a political case from a local and community level. For arts and culture to be a truly integral part in society, more needs to be done at a level that reaches people’s lives, which means going beyond simply asserting the DCMS remit around the cabinet table.
The incoming minister will want to read recent Fabian reports Pride of Place and Places to Be. These explore the scope of a renewed popular environmentalism, setting a precedent for a reimagined arts and culture policy at a local, societal level. The minister will want to keep an eye out for a post-election Fabian publication which will investigate how can local arts projects can become empowered local community hubs, and therefore help to widen participation and access. It will also ask how stakeholders in the arts, the state and the private sector can work together to form meaningful relationships and more sustainable revenue streams. Another aspect of this is investigating how a new government can make a political case for the arts in a high-wage, high-skill economy. Finally how can we enshrine the equal distribution of power and opportunity in the arts, and best enable the social mobility and advantage that comes from such participation?
Then as now, the sentiments of Jennie Lee’s 1965 white paper, A Policy for the Arts, remain central: ‘in any civilized community, the arts… must occupy a central place’, defending against the ‘drabness, uniformity and joylessness’ of a post-industrial economy, in the interests of ‘cultivation’.
Indeed, the defence of ‘arts for art’s sake’ requires both a practical defence of funding, and a moral restating of the case for arts and culture. Good luck minister.