When Labour we came into government in 1997, what did we inherit in the cultural, artistic and sporting fields?
A demoralised landscape starved of resources. 18 years of a Tory government that had considered culture and sport as luxuries rather than central to our well-being and pride as a nation. What the Conservatives called my department told us all we needed to know about how they viewed our cultural and creative sectors: the Department of National Heritage – the past, old buildings, monuments rather than the present let alone the future and the importance of having a much broader view of the creative sector if we are to fulfil our potential as a country.
1997 was a cultural as well as a political new beginning. You felt it at the time. It was summed up by that famous Newsweek cover ‘Cool Britannia’. Mocked by reactionaries then and now in a similar way as ‘political correctness’, ‘Cool Britannia’ was journalistic shorthand that now sounds clichéd but described what was and remains a serious endeavour.
To encourage and tap the talents of a creative nation; to shake off the cobwebs of a past that made us backward looking, like some grumpy old man sitting in the corner of the pub harping on about the good old days and ranting about the present; to ensure creative and sporting opportunities were no longer just the preserve of the few and to end Britain’s dismal performance in sport. It had become part of our national self image that Brits weren’t psychologically programmed to win – but we were good sports as in good, regular losers.
Chris Smith set about his task with passion. It’s often forgotten in those first two years we had stuck with the Tories’ spending plans. In spite of that, Chris managed to negotiate the biggest percentage increase in any department’s budget. The pattern has been repeated in subsequent spending reviews with DCMS vying with DfID for the departments that have done best.
Investment in the arts, sport and our creative sectors has risen several fold. It is not an exaggeration to say that over the last 12 years Britain has enjoyed a cultural and sporting renaissance. We are now in the top three in absolute terms in all the cultural and creative sectors. As a proportion of our GDP we are number one in the world. The creative industries employ twice as many people as our financial services and have been growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole. And that’s just their raw economic value – it disregards their wider social and cultural value and their value in terms of Britain’s image in the world. Our films, music, theatre, museums and galleries are widely recognised as among the best in the world. The BBC beats all the international competition for the quality and range of its programmes. In Beijing we had our best Olympics since 1912 and we won the games for Britain in 2012.
None of this has happened by accident. We’ve revived sport and music in schools. School sport was virtually dead under the Tories – with just one pupil in four being doing two hours of quality PE or sport a week. Today 95% of pupils do and we are on course to meet our commitment of five hours for all pupils 16 and under by 2012. We are also now doing the same for culture and the arts. A pilot scheme called Find Your Talent has been offering pupils across the country five hours of quality artistic, musical or other cultural activity a week. It has been a huge success and if we’re re-elected we’ll extend the same opportunities to children everywhere. We’ve supported young talent in sport and the arts so they can succeed. We’ve recognised the life changing potential of culture and sport in the most challenging communities, providing youngsters with the chance of unlocking potential they had no idea they had. We’ve invested in infrastructure at both community and elite levels. New museums, galleries, sports centres, community sports and arts facilities. We’ve made them free, so that to quote Britain’s first ever Arts Minister, Jenny Lee in 1964 – ‘everyone can enjoy the best’.
This has all reflected Labour’s fundamental belief that everybody has a gift or a talent and they should have the chance to realise it. That failure to do this holds us all back as a nation. And that the enriching qualities of culture and sport should not only be available to the few who can afford to pay, but to everyone.
This government has also buried that decades old lie that you can either have access or excellence but you can’t have both. We’ve shown you can’t have one without the other. British films, music, theatre, art, museums and even now some of our sporting teams are the best in the world because we have created a system and committed the investment to ensure that whatever background, however well off you are – you can find your talent and we’ll support you to get to the top.
This is one of the fundamental differences between us and the Conservatives. Free market dogma – to which the Tories have reverted in their wrongheaded response to the global recession – can’t and won’t deliver cultural and sporting excellence and certainly won’t ensure access for all. Before 1979 Mrs Thatcher promised she wouldn’t cut arts funding. A promise immediately broken once the Tories took power. They would do exactly the same now. David Cameron and his inner circle have shown no interest in culture, except that of the Bullingdon Club. The model Tory council, Barnet, boasted recently: ‘we don’t do culture in Barnet’. The Conservatives have noticeably excluded DCMS from their very short list of departments that will escape their savage cuts. All departments are of course going to have to manage without the big increases we’ve enjoyed in recent years. But the idea that it makes sense to take an axe to spending on culture and sport is madness. My department spends less than 1% of the NHS budget, for every pound we invest we get £5 back, this is one area of our economy that has continued to grow through the recent downturn and will help provide the skilled jobs of the future. The big cuts the Tories propose would have a minimal impact on the fiscal deficit but a devastating impact on our culture, arts and sport.
Britain also has some of the best television and radio in the world. This hasn’t happened by accident either, but thanks to the right creative environment and sound regulation and competition rules. Anyone who has experienced what America or continental Europe have to offer can only feel extremely grateful for our public service broadcasting and for the BBC in particular. Both would be in grave danger under a Conservative government.
The biggest story for the media of the Labour party conference was the Sun switching sides. But wasn’t it amazing that a media that loves nothing more than talking about itself, missed the real story behind the Sun’s shift in allegiance: naked commercial interest. The independent broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, is currently looking at a complaint from a number of companies about Sky’s dominance of sports and films on pay TV. David Cameron says he wants to abolish or dismember Ofcom. What a co-incidence! The Tories have also said they would lift the legal requirement on broadcasters to be politically impartial. Impartiality is one of things the public value most about British broadcasting and the reason TV and radio news are more trusted than newspapers. But of course if broadcasters were no longer required to be impartial, that would pave the way for a UK version of Fox News.
The Tories have also launched an unprecedented assault on the BBC’s independence. Their culture spokesman has said they would tear up the multiannual charter and licence fee settlements. No previous government, not even Mrs Thatcher’s have contemplated doing that. Respect for the BBC’s multi-annual settlements have until now been seen by all political parties as essential for its independence. We should be hearing much more noise from the BBC’s supporters about these brazen threats to its independence.
It was the great Jennie Lee again who said that the job of government in culture and the arts is to create the climate for them to flourish and to secure the funds and then to step back and let them get on with it. That important arms length principle is one of the reasons our cultural and artistic life is so vibrant. Covent Garden’s principle ballerina Tamara Rojo wrote in the Observer last week that the arms length principle is why she dances here rather than in her home country, Spain. She said:
‘The British should be proud of their belief in the arm’s-length principle. Between the government and the artists is an arts council. Big artistic companies, like ballet companies, require support from the state. On the other hand, artists need to be free to be creative. This requires objectivity and transparency in decision-making, the intrinsic values of the current British model’.
But just as the Tories are threatening the BBC’s independence, they are also threatening the independence of our cultural and artistic institutions. Boris Johnson has recently tried to appoint as chair of the London Arts Council none other than Veronica Wadley, the former editor of the Evening Standard, a newspaper that you may remember was not unhelpful to Johnson in his quest for power. That wouldn’t matter so much if the majority independent members of the appointments panel hadn’t declined even to shortlist Ms Wadley because as one put it she was ‘manifestly less qualified’ than the other candidates. Johnson tried to appoint her anyway, in clear breach of the Nolan rules, introduced under John Major to avoid cronyism. I’ve blocked the appointment. But both Johnson and Cameron’s team seem intent on waiting until an election victory they arrogantly assume is theirs before shoehorning her in anyway.
This is a taste of what things would be like under a Tory government. Savage cuts combined with philistinism and political interference. Our cultural, creative and sports worlds and all those who love and value them need to wake up to this. There are too many people sleepwalking towards the election, too many people thinking lazily it might be time for a change without realising you can’t have change to the Conservatives without negative consequences.
By contrast, we must remind people of our strong record and reassure them that as progressives we will never see these areas as optional extras that can be ditched when times are tough, but as central to our national well being and future prosperity.
We recently faced
the very bleak prospect of having to cancel three of the country’s major cultural projects – the new UK Film Centre – which will be the first of its kind in the world, a major expansion of the Tate Modern – which is receiving three-times more visitors than it was designed for and an extension to the British Museum, to provide it with much needed space for temporary exhibitions, which it currently doesn’t have. The problem arose because of the impact of the economic downturn on private donations combined with an over-commitment on the DCMS capital budget. But Gordon Brown personally intervened to ensure these schemes will go ahead. This is a massive political vote of confidence in our cultural sector. And we will continue to have that confidence in the years ahead. Maintaining investment, widening access and opportunity, not retreating or retrenching. Building on Britain’s leading position in the creative industries, not undermining them or selling them out to rapacious foreign media magnates. Ensuring the infrastructure is there so everyone can benefit from the digital revolution rather than only those who live in areas the market will serve. Supporting grass roots and school sport and having the confidence to deliver a successful outward-looking Olympics. Defending our creative talents and their funding bodies’ freedom to be edgy and innovate rather than smothering them with political interference.
Our country has to choose between two very different visions for Britain’s future. The one optimistic, broadminded, outward looking, progressive prepared to commit political and financial support. The other pessimistic, narrow-minded, inward looking and, well conservative, that would withdraw that support. We should have the confidence in our vision because it’s of a confident, progressive and improving nation. If we can communicate that choice both in the election and for our next decade as a country – we should have every chance of being in government to deliver it.