In the arts world that I inhabit, the Tory Party is seen as the sworn enemy of the arts world. This is neither necessary, nor historically determined. Conservatives were seen to have, in previous eras, an affinity with the arts, with patronage seen as part of noblesse oblige, whilst the left has sometimes struggled to see beyond a utilitarian view of the arts as just another lever for social progress: philistinism knows no party.
The shift to where we are now came in the 1960s, when Harold Wilson and Jenny Lee decisively made the arts an integral part of the Labour government’s purpose and mission. The Open University was founded, the RSC and the NT received their first major Arts Council support and censorship was abolished: an act of enormous practical and symbolic consequence. Despite Edward Heath’s penchant for orchestral conducting, the Tory party was thereafter always seen to be at best a grudging supporter of the arts and sometimes its active scold. Labour became the tribal home of the vast majority of artists.
The few exceptions were the traditionally hardy, “I stand on my own two feet”, variety artists and comedians, who continued their public support for the Conservatives. When they aged and their work came to be seen part of another era, they inadvertently cemented the dynamic in place, as the young allied themselves with the social progressivism of Labour.
See an actor with the Telegraph now and they will quickly assure you, “it’s for the Sport!”. (Occasionally it’s The Times, “for the Crossword”). Lines are fixed, tribes rigidly sorted and what political disputes there are amongst artists tend toward internal Labour squabbles.
How might this become more fluid? I have five thoughts to offer.
- If we want the arts to thrive and flourish in the future, and have everyone take part, it starts in schools. Currently there is no arts subject that is a part of the core Baccalaureate and schools in the state sector are finding it harder and harder to commit to arts activities as a result. It’s always seemed to me an odd conundrum that private schools make massive investment in the arts, according arts provision a centrality to their vision, yet politicians who send their kids to them restrict the same commitment in state schools. Genista McIntosh recently called on the government to commit to requiring Ofsted to withhold ‘outstanding’ status to any school that does not provide a full range of creative opportunities. Put the arts back at the centre of state schooling with the same commitment that private schools make. Go from STEM to STEAM.
- Accept Osborne’s remarkable announcement – “to cut the arts would be a false economy”, he said in his last Autumn Statement – as the new normal. Peter Bazalgette, hardly a raging lefty, has led the way here when Chair of the Arts Council. Like any industry, commercial success comes through investment in R+D. A prime example is War Horse: a global commercial phenomenon, yet absolutely not started as an obvious winner. It grew out of investment from the public purse and has repaid that investment many times over. Embracing both the principle and the current level of public funding as a baseline would be like Churchill accepting the post-war welfare state in the 50s: once he did that, it paved the way for the Conservatives to be trusted.
- We’re currently a little awkwardly stuck between the European model of enormous state subsidy and the US model of negligible state subsidy but high levels of philanthropy. If we want a better balance, pledge to maintain the current level of investment from the state and more actively enable philanthropy through the tax system. Explore a more US-style system of tax relief for arts philanthropy: consider making donations to arts charities tax deductible. And for heavens’ sake get rid of the red tape around Gift Aid and Data Protection, both of which are set to strangle arts patronage.
- Consider ways of introducing competition in to arts funding. At the moment, the Arts Council is segmented regionally but all focussed upwards on one agenda (however commendable). Maybe encourage people of high net worth to give to major new national arts trusts, located in different regions or focussed on particular types of work, to which arts organisations and individuals can apply for funds. Genuine diversity and plurality might flow from this.
- Lastly a plea for better manners: make a decision to quit once and for all the chortling about “one-legged lesbians”. People saying that stuff look and sound like ugly-minded men (yes, it usually is men) whose views are repugnant to pretty much everyone under about 50. Look around you and don’t be frightened: inclusivity and access to the arts is morally right and makes the world better for everyone. And it’s not zero-sum: we still need a properly funded opera house. High art doesn’t have to suffer just because more needs doing for all parts of society.
The Big Tent Ideas Festival is a very welcome sign that the Conservative party has people in it who can and want to think about the future creatively. The creative industries are an enormously important part of our national life and economy. A better relationship between the two would benefit us all. Let’s work together.
Paul Miller has been a theatre director for 30 years, directing in the West End, at the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the Old Vic and Sheffield Theatres. He is Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. He writes here in a personal capacity.