What the UK election means for the arts
After the rhetoric comes the reality, and new cultural secretary Jeremy Hunt has already said he expects to cut £66m from the cultural department
By Robert Hewison. Comment, Issue 214, June 2010
Published online: 21 May 2010
“Our culture is second to none,” said David Cameron, shortly before the UK general election. That our new prime minister said it in a tabloid newspaper, The Sun, was surprising, but it was another sign that politicians were taking cultural matters seriously. All three main parties produced policy documents for the election, and there was a public debate between Labour, Conservative and Liberal-Democratic spokesmen that showed a remarkable unanimity on the importance of sustaining the cultural sector. In view of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that has emerged, that is just as well. The cultural sector chipped in with its own pre-election document, Cultural Capital, which made a confident argument for the social and economic contributions of the arts and heritage, and reproduced a series of statements on their value by leading politicians of all parties—statements that will be used against them if things turn sour.
Jeremy Hunt, the new secretary of state for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, and his junior minister Ed Vaizey have put a lot of energy into wooing the cultural sector. After the rhetoric comes the reality, and Hunt has already said he expects to cut £66m from the cultural department. But that is just expected efficiency savings—much deeper cuts may follow: civil servants have pencilled in a figure of 15%. Cultural organisations have begun their own paper exercises looking at 20% cuts in public funding, and a very likely fall in local authority support. Choices will have to be made. Since people are quite expensive to get rid of, programmes and building projects will be the first to suffer.
One source of succour will be the National Lottery, which has been prospering in the recession, and which both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have promised to restore to its original purpose of funding heritage, arts, sport and charities. The Big Lottery Fund, which currently gets half the cake, will no longer be used as a back pocket for various government inspired schemes. This will cost the taxpayer nothing, and the government is also keen to encourage philanthropy. The Conservatives promised to simplify Gift Aid and make it possible to make lifetime gifts of works of art, which will be welcomed by museums, who will have little to spend on acquisitions. Cameron’s rhetoric of the “Big Society” will mean a greater emphasis on volunteering and local engagement that Liberal Democrats should be comfortable with.
The new cultural department will also want to prove its virility, however, and join in the promised bonfire of the quangos, of which the arts and heritage have many. Since the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council can’t even spend the money it has got (there was a £5m underspend on its Renaissance in the Regions programme to help non-national museums), this seems a prime target. Dissolution of that quintessentially New Labour creation, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts would release a handy £300m from its endowment, but it would require legislation to achieve.
English Heritage will be pleased to have escaped Labour’s promised review, but before the election there was Conservative talk of merging English Heritage with the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is a seriously bad idea: the lottery is a UK-wide organisation handing out funds to others; English Heritage is limited geographically, and has a confused remit as enabler, property owner, and planning policeman.
Heritage will do well under the Conservatives, ideologically more comfortable with the term than Labour. Only right-wing Conservatives think the pre-election commitment to continue Labour’s policy of free national museums should be broken. A Museums and Heritage Bill was promised by the Conservatives that would give national museums greater financial independence. All large cultural organisations will be encouraged to build up endowments through fundraising and bids to the lottery—but that seems a long-term aspiration in the present grim conditions.
Launching the Liberal Democrat arts manifesto, its leader Nick Clegg, now the deputy Prime Minister, said that cutting culture’s tiny budget would make little difference to the deficit: “Arts funding is a duty, not an option for any government.” Speaking at Tate Modern in December, George Osborne, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, said: “The arts play a vital role in our communities, helping to bind people together and create real social value.” Noble words—and if things do get rough, they will come back to haunt the people who said them.
The writer is professor of cultural policy and leadership studies at City University London
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