Proper public funding of the arts is important for the development of society

The most important question that needs to be asked about public funding of the arts in the UK is this: what kind of an arts culture as a society do we want – even more directly indeed what kind of a society do we want?

The worst-case scenario is that the current government will cut public funding to the arts so much that only the so-called ‘heritage industry’ survives as being state funded, supported to cater for a financially viable tourist industry, and everything else – labelled in recent years as ‘the creative industries’ is left to fend for itself in the market place. Actually that is not the worst- case scenario – since this government in the end would, I am sure, privatise (or ‘devolve the functions of’) the national museums and galleries as well – I understand this has indeed been looked at and fortunately (for the time being at least) rejected. Free admission to the nationals would have gone as soon as this government had taken over except that that is a policy clearly popular with the public and – more importantly for this government – (fortuitously for us) it brings in money as well.

I wonder though if the tag ‘creative industries’ has now become part of the problem, encapsulating too much a sense of the market, reintroducing, as New Labour encouraged, the ideas of known and overly clarifiable intentions, (target) audiences and commercial return as being more or less essential aspects of artistic production, rather than the emphasis being laid on the work itself .

The previous government’s access policy, while being effective in encouraging public involvement in the arts through education and outreach programmes (which will be some of the first things to go with the current cuts), is also potentially constricting when applied to artists themselves who need to be allowed the space and freedom to do the work they do. It is well worth revisiting the views of those such as the critic Ken Tynan whose 1968 address to the Royal Society of the Arts on a new – and newly subsidised – National Theatre has been reproduced on the National Theatre website:

‘You would be surprised how hard it is, in a society where “theatre” “means theatre for private profit”, to explain to people that this theatre actually belongs to them. We are not selling a product; we are providing a service. Success at the box office is no longer the only criterion: we would rather have a first-rate work playing to less than capacity than a third-rate one filling the house.’

The argument, though – which is nevertheless a potent one – that the arts are now a huge force economically and that considerably more (not less) public investment would greatly help secure economic growth (the evidence is abundant that this is so) is not swaying a government plainly antipathetic to all public funding.

Indeed the usefulness of the economic argument is at present as much to trash the question ‘Why should the arts be supported when many important services are being cut?’ – a divide and rule policy of course as soon as one understands that there is no such thing as a government’s economic policy which is not deeply characterised by the political bias of the party in power. As a society we share all the cuts that emanate from the same current policy.

Further evidence of such a bias is clear from the fact that the government is strongly encouraging philanthropy and corporate sponsorship at a time when public funding in the arts is being severely cut, with the strong implication being that public funding is to be replaced, rather than the sector as a whole strengthened through overall greater funding.

My belief is that it is the work of the artist which is the contribution to society. If we shift the balance away from our mixed system of funding (one third state funding, one third box office, one third private investment) then we are – as in the USA with its largely philanthropic model – in danger of creating a blander, more conservative and less innovative arts culture.

The bottom line must be: do we wish to support artists or don’t we? If not then we will have a much more narrowly defined arts culture (one which does not prize risk-taking, depth or long term development) and, as a consequence, a narrower society and one indeed significantly further away from Keynes’s goal of a ‘communal civilised society’.  The effect would be that the potential for much work will disappear, and many artists – those who can – are likely to leave for more exciting and stimulating cultural environments.

Is John Bercow breaking the rules of impartiality?

In the voting reform debate on Monday, only about 40 MPs out of the 78 who had put their name down to speak were in the end able to do so.  One of those excluded was Caroline Lucas, the lone representative of the Green Party, who despite standng up to speak numerous times ‘did not catch the Speaker’s eye’  and was not called to speak, as I believe she should have been – indeed as one of the first ten speakers. 

The House of Commons online information pages has the following guidelines for the speaker’s behaviour:

The Speaker has to protect the rights of minorities in the House and must ensure that the  holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their point of view. This is especially important when deciding whether or not to allow the closure to be moved – that is,whether a debate can be brought to a close. If minorities have not yet been allowed to speak, the Speaker may decide to keep the debate open.

At present the Green Party holds – at least within Parliament –  minority views. It must do; it is, within Parliament, a minority party. Yet Caroline Lucas was not called to speak. Additionally, on the same day, the Speaker refused to select the amendment which she put forward on the voting reform bill, although Labour’s amendment was called. It seems to me that in both these cases the Speaker, John Bercow, has broken the guidelines outlined above.

There may be a strong case to be made – for democratic reasons – that no selection of amendments should occur at all, although if a large number of amendments are put forward on a bill at second reading  the democratic process could perhaps get unwieldy. Yet Caroline Lucas’s amendment was put forward by the leader of a political party, so at the very least should have been selected for Parliament and the public to hear, even if no vote was taken. Moreover the system is completely closed and opaque: there are no reasons given why some amendments are selected and not others. What is clear, however, is that the amendments selected will most likely be those tabled by the those most powerful in government and opposition, with all others shut out: in other words it is not a level playing field.

If the idea of the selection process is that ‘unreasonable’ amendments should be weeded out then what indeed was the Labour amendment accepted? Many would have agreed with the idea that the bill should have been broken in two, with voting reform and constituency borders treated separately, yet this amendment would have, if accepted, have wrecked the bill. As such, it was an unreasonable amendment.

Economics is a shield behind which idealogues hide

I studied economics for a year at college. At the end of the year I was as wise about economics as when I started – and today I am still none the wiser. At first glance it is surprising that the British public, with all their cynicism, so easily accepts the pronouncements of politicians about how a government should act based on economic ‘facts’.  It is almost as though economics has become a religion, an absolute ‘Word’ against which there is no appeal.

Two things come together here. On the one hand, in the UK, any political thought or action that might be construed  as either ‘idealistic’ or ‘ideological’ are unfashionable, the one because it is deemed too personal and therefore unrealistic, the other because such overarching ideas are thought to be  too full of prejudice, too set and unadaptable for the needs of the populace. But on the other hand there is the – apparently – socially acceptable magician’s trick of economics, a way for ideology to get through without it being presented as such. Because, in the guise of being a science, economics is driven first and foremost by the political and philosophical prejudices which the economist already possesses and which sets the agenda for his or her (usually his) economic and financial projections. In other words economics is used as the ‘science’ to justify actions which – if the economics were to be stripped away – would reveal the politicians properly as the ideologues they are. 

The current  rock of this religion – which everyone (or almost everyone) is so accepting of is the DEFICIT. Moreover there is no truth other than the DEFICIT.

And – just as the mainstream religion, to maintain its exclusivity, rails against graven images – one will find economists (albeit thin on the ground) who argue  (as the economists for the Green Party do) that there is another economic religion – one which says we shouldn’t be having cuts at all, that – on the contrary – we should be creating jobs in the public sector. As it happens I would myself support these actions. But not for economic reasons. For cultural reasons – reasons which understand economics as part of the mechanics of a culture, but not its driving force.   

I am an idealist – one who unashamedly wears certain political and philosophical ideas – and I would like to say NO to economics and economists. Forget the deficit. In fact forget economics.It is an illusion presented to us by politicians who also – just like me and indeed like most people – have their own personal political and philosophical ideas but who cowardly refuse to properly display these ideas to the public. Instead they hide behind economics.


And yet –  in my own attempt at a trenchant, simple, forceful analysis perhaps I also underestimate the ‘enemy’ economics, with its own subtle force and substance, indeed as something which is now almost (virtually) an ideology itself. Even the most progressive political parties will now automatically give economic arguments to bolster what logically or ‘naturally’ ought to be understood as  cultural ones. The taglines of pressure groups and campaign organisations cite ‘economic, social and cultural value’ in that order without stopping to think that perhaps social and economic values are included in the first, ot even that there might be no such thing as economic value in itself. 

Economics has historically been a significant aspect of political philosophy – both of the right and of the left, even if as an aspect it has been a complex one often difficult to separate from the philosophy of which it is a part . But it has always been that, an aspect – not a ‘value’. But what seems to have happened in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century – as there has been a rejection of the progressive development of political philosophy, so ‘economics’ and its concomitant ‘economic value’ have flooded into the vacuum to take its place.  This is a politics of the right, of the market, of privatisation, but it is a politics ruled – both on the left as well as on the right – by the language of economics (working alongside its henchman management-speak), a language which defines the new philosophy. Money in the early twenty first century is desecularised: it is the universal cultural currency, and economics is its political equivalent. Yes, economics is a shield hiding this politics in an era when such freely expressed ideology is frowned upon as being divisive, but it is also the thing itself – the unarticulated political philosophy driving ‘the politics of economics’.

Everyone regarded as a citizen – the only domestic policy that matters

Join the campaign today: that everyone irrespective of their status in society – whether they do or don’t have paid work, whether they are struggling as low income earners or are well-off, whether they are here  legally or illegally, should be regarded as equal citizens. Many will argue that we do already treat – or try to treat – everyone as equal citizens  – but the plain fact is that we don’t and we don’t because of all the prejudices people have about those at the margins of ‘mainstream’ society. 

Take the employment minister, Chris Grayling’s comments yesterday linking the 250,000 households where ‘no one has ever worked [for pay]’ (Sunday Times) with ‘a benefits culture that has gone badly badly wrong’.  There are already three  assumptions – or prejudices – here immediately. One is not having paid work. What – after all – is so great about that? There are many people – some earning millions – who society would be better off giving those millions to in benefits because of the detrimental effect on society of the ‘work’ they do – hedge fund managers, fo example, would be just the beginning of a very long list… Society may complain about bonuses being paid to certain people but it does not complain about them actually earning. Yet still there is this strict unreal cutoff,  the product of a society that continues to be dominated by the ‘paid work ethic’ , between paid work (good) and unpaid work (bad). One only has to stop and think for a moment and realise how dogmatic and fundamentally stupid this idea is.

The second prejudice is therefore  (and by association) against benefits themselves which, because of the paid work ethic, continue to be perceived as ill-gotten gains, often indeed unfortunately by those who receive them. There are certain exceptions to this – where people are clearly physically disabled, the public is sympathetic, and I understand also – at least up to now – that the authorities can go out of their way to ensure that people who need such state help will get that – and advice as well . Yet the subtext of David Cameron’s newly decared war against welfare benefit fraud is a war against all those at the margins of mainstream society, and a war against benefits themselves, for the simple reason that a war against benefit fraud is necessarily a war against everyone claiming benefits. Where, for example, are all the TV adverts asking people to claim all the benefits they are entitled to? New figures show that ‘dishonestly claimed benefits’ total £3.1 billion/year, yet people lose £16 billion/year in unclaimed benefits. David Cameron should  either shut up about fraud, or pledge very publicly to advertise unclaimed benefits.   

In the days when I was on income support I found that I could not live on it – it was beyond uncomfortable – it was impossible. If it was impossible – which it will be to those claiming today as well – then logically I must myself have been a benefit cheat. The currently quoted figure is of 70 graduates chasing one job. Those who do not have paid work will be allowed to do more or less with their lives according to how much they receive in ‘pay’ by the state. That amount should be as much as possible, since  we – through the state – should make living without paid work as comfortable as possible (not the other way round) so that those who do not have paid work are given the maximum opportunity to explore all the avenues of life including the opportunity also of unpaid work, a work that the citizen should choose for themselves if they wish to do so. (Work is work whether it is paid or not, and there is no reason to say that unpaid work cannot often be better for society than paid work – and cultural effect should trump economic effect every time).

The third assumption is that somehow the people in each of these 250,000 households are under ‘house arrest’, and of course if people are not given enough money through benefits to travel (and travel is not just physical travel but a broader exploration of  the world)  then effectively most people will be confined for long periods to the same homes where often everyone else in the family is out of paid work too. This should be the true meaning of ‘social mobility’, which is that everyone is able to grow as a citizen and interact with the world, not the reactionary idea that people will get on in life by clambering up the ladder and over everyone else.  

In the end what is required is a basic income for all citizens – it is something that will flow naturally out of the wider policy of respecting everyone as a citizen – a policy that will logically also ask those at the margins of mainstream society ‘Do they want the mainstream to join us?’ – rather than the other way round, a policy that therefore will legalise all drugs and therefore also destigmatise those who have drugs problems, a policy which will call immediately for an amnesty on asylum seekers allowing many of the worst treated and forgotten in society to be also regarded as equal citizens.

We need to go backwards to go forwards

Two new books Atlee: A Life in Politics by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds and What did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? by Francis Beckett have thrown the spotlight both on the remarkable social reforms Atlee introduced in the UK in the six-year Labour Government from 1945 to 1951 and the consequent erosion of these reforms. Beckett blames one single generation – those born in the years just after the war – for their dismantling, but the worse effects were achieved (if the Atlee generation was their grandparents) by the baby-boomers’ parents, the generation that included Margaret Thatcher – amongst others. Some of the younger Labour politicians around at the time of Atlee’s Government were already less than idealistic, with Hugh Gaitskell  introducing prescription charges in 1951, something  James Callaghan did again in 1967 following their abolition in 1964.  With Thatcher in power in the 1980s, the country had shifted so far to the right that the Labour Party effectively panicked and saw itself as terminally unelectable unless it too changed. I remember at the time saying to a friend that I did not believe that the Labour Party would ever be in power again, and so far I have been proved right.

Contrast, then, the truly progressive modern Government of 1946-1951 with the New Labour Government of 1997-2010 and its programme of ‘modernisation’ (a code word for privatisation), and some of the baby-boomers are to be blamed as well.  Atlee introduced his reforms when the country was poor and at a low ebb, whereas Blair removed maintenance grants for students in higher education at a time  – in 1998 – when the country was supposed to be booming. Yet there were two major waves of post-war reforms in Britain (as indeed elsewhere in Europe) and those in their twenties and thirties in the sixties and early seventies were also responsible for important changes in social attitudes in the shape of campaigning for civil rights and against racism, gay rights, feminist campaigns and much else, and what has been achieved in this respect is here, one hopes, to stay.

Nevertheless, as a baby-boomer myself, I am dispirited by what successive governments – not just in Britain  but in other parts of Europe – have done to make us less of a civilised society in many important respects.  The difficult part now is that the most radical progress is to be achieved by first going backwards – backwards in order to go forwards. To nationalise much of what has been privatised. To remove private companies from the ‘clutches’ of the NHS. To ensure that everyone in the country whoever they are and whatever their income have more than enough to live on. To make higher education free again throughout the whole of the UK.  To replace everything that charities do in the UK with government intervention so that charities are effectively put out of business … The list – a huge list – carries on, but already I realise that I am mentioning things that were outside Atlee’s compass. It is not just that progress has to be seen in the light of a world so different to that of Atlee’s – it is also that the development of the ideas of socialism itself have not stopped, as though the position where we should now be is already a long way down a road that branched off many miles back …

How can this tortuous route backwards and forwards now be taken? In terms of party politics it can be taken now only by a government whose party does not treat itself or society in an oligarchical manner – a party that does not believe in ‘-ocracies’ of whatever type. This is a big ask – and such a programme needs aspects of both the former waves of reform to succeed: it needs a huge change in social attitudes away from an overriding belief in the ‘market’ to a belief instead in the world, a world where the ‘paid working person’ is also just one element within a much larger framework. This has to be combined too with the effective  administrative zeal of an Atlee Government. But crucially it needs something else as well. It needs a younger generation to throw off the still continuing charge of being ‘Thatcher’s Children’ and for them to say, and to say loudly, ‘We will change this’.

We cannot legislate for a better class of criminal to sit in Parliament

There is talk about Conrad Black taking his seat again in the House of Lords, against the continuing debate about whether those who have served time in prison should be allowed to do so. But to ask whether a convicted criminal should be banned from the Lords – and therefore, by implication, Parliament as a whole – is also  to ask whether grassroots campaigners including all kind of protesters as well as many feminists should therefore never be allowed to stand in Parliament either.  

Better to ask the question whether Conrad Black should have been given his seat in the first place – an action which has been just one small part of a long-term institutionalised and ongoing corruption of the second House, that is to say a House still peopled by too many rich powerful industrialists who thereby gain an excorbitant influence in Parliament.

The poor should be speaking in Parliament

We have of course many experts in the Chamber today, but perhaps the biggest experts of all on the subject of this debate are not present. They are the poor themselves. I believe that they should be here in the Chamber somehow, for the simple reason-and it seems common sense to me-that the views of the poor should be heard in a debate on the poor. It is a question of representation, since those who are poor and on the margins of the mainstream are effectively denied a voice. This is the reason, I think, why we still have something called “poverty” in our sophisticated western society.

I was once a little closer to this form of expertise; I was on benefits myself, specifically income support. This was in Sheffield in the 1980s at a time when unemployment was less reviled than it is now, partly because of the sympathy for those working in the coal-mining and steel industries who had been put out of work.

I suggest that poverty as an experience is actually very simple, even if the bureaucracy that has accumulated to deal with it, including the benefits system, is complicated and public attitudes themselves are convoluted. I think that over a period of decades we have become, with a larger middle class, more aware at least of the idea of poverty, but perhaps less tolerant of those who remain unemployed, in the sense, of course, of not having paid work.

I believe that there are really just two things that a Government should bear in mind about poverty. The first is money. This Government are freezing benefits and capping the housing benefit. Sheffield was then, and still is, cheaper than London, but income support was impossible to live on then; today, with a personal allowance rate of £51.85 per week for the under-25s, who have been hit the hardest by this recession, I would say that it is absolutely impossible to survive on. Whatever you read in the newspapers, it is difficult to survive on most benefits.

The second and related issue is the stigma of being unemployed, by which I mean not having paid work, which is not necessarily the same as not working. For everyone on basic benefits, this stigma is less now connected with unemployment; it is more about being off the map and unvalued as a citizen. I believe passionately that one should be regarded as a citizen whether one is in paid work or not-indeed, whatever one’s status. That means that if you do not have an income, or have a low income, the state should pay you a decent rate on which to live.

The very language that the new Government use perpetuates the stigma. For example, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government says:

“The Government believes that we need to encourage responsibility and fairness in the welfare system. That means providing help for those who cannot work, training and targeted support for those looking for work, but sanctions for those who turn down reasonable offers of work or training”.

Carrot and stick, carrot or stick, it does not matter-this is still, in an old-fashioned sense, a perpetuation of an “us and them” situation for the poor who, in comparison with the poor in Victorian times, are highly articulate and educated and have expectations.

If we were not so wedded to the entirely constricting idea of paid work being the measure of all things, we would solve poverty overnight. However, by these restrictions on benefits, this Government are saying that we cannot afford to do so. Like others, I believe that this Budget owes its inspiration much more to political philosophy than to national need. The Green Party for one, now represented in Parliament at last, believes that we should not be having these cuts at all and that we should be doing quite the opposite and creating jobs in the public sector.

Another example of this same stigmatisation are the powerful television adverts which are supposed to target, in their words, “benefit thieves” but which in fact, I believe, help to criminalise people who are claiming benefits. Just as bad is the fact that no Government yet have run TV adverts advertising unclaimed benefits, which is a little bit like the “finders keepers” rule. Why do a Government who would claim to lift people out of poverty not chase down as assiduously the poor who do not know how to claim benefits as ferociously as they do those who may be claiming too much? It is easy to build up a head of righteous indignation over those who it is said are abusing the system, but are we not truly abusing the system if we do not reach out to those who are poor? I would like an answer from the Minister as to whether the new Government would consider running such TV adverts.

Where should we be looking for answers? Is it appropriate for charities to fill the gap? I notice this week from the Evening Standard that the Government, in a supposed time of national austerity, are providing £1 million of matching-funds to a newspaper editor’s project to dispense largesse to the poor, piecemeal via a number of charities. This is David Cameron’s big philanthropic society in action, turning the clock back to a Victorian society in an age when the poor do not want to be, and should not be, patronised. I am not saying that individuals might not be helped by this, or that charities are not fine, but the proper purpose of charities is, in my view, that they do-yes-a significant job of stepping into the breach when a Government fail to do the appropriate and long-term job that they should do. I would support a Government who said, “We will make all the charities that cater to poverty redundant by such and such a date”.

I can give one example of a government policy that seemed to address the twin evils of money and stigma. From income support, I went on to the original enterprise allowance scheme as an artist. Of course, the scheme did not suit everyone at the time-those who had worked in traditional industries in and around Sheffield just wanted their old jobs back-but a number of things made the enterprise allowance scheme unique.

First, you were instantly destigmatised, because as soon as you were self-employed, you were considered to be working, although-this is the significant point-you might not yet have had any income from your work except for the small weekly grant that you received. Secondly, there was no bureaucracy. The business plan was easy for anyone to fill in. You did not have to be a businessperson to do that and you were not judged according to how the business might do, although some people later became highly successful commercially as a result of being on the scheme. Thirdly, they left you alone-a mark of respect and trust. Fourthly, you followed your dream, or simply continued with your work, for which one might say that the state was paying, although not very much.

Unfortunately, the enterprise allowance scheme did not last. It was watered down and then scrapped as the big stick once more came out, but it is being looked at again. It features in the recent Arts Council England report, Creative Survival in Hard Times. I understand that the Government are taking an interest in the original scheme and I would like to know whether they are thinking about reintroducing it.

I believe that the only way to cure poverty is finally to accept that there will never be full employment in terms of paid work unless the state itself fills that gap and assumes and respects people’s contribution to society irrespective of their income.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.