Tuesday, 5 May 2015

UK Arts Policy Election Special

Image result for conservative symbol         Image result for labour symbol
The parties vying for votes in tomorrow's UK general election have quite rightly not focused their campaigns on cultural policy. They've also failed to address more important issues like housing, productivity and international relations, but that's another story. The parties can be blamed for many evasions, but they shouldn't be faulted for giving culture a low priority, I'm more concerned by the flaccid critique of such cultural policies they have laid out, which is squarely the responsibility of the cultural sector itself. 

Labour has produced a document elaborating on their rather bare-bones manifesto commitments. The pledge that's received most attention is the guarantee that every child will be entitled to creative education. I'm all for creative education, but the reason it's been squeezed out is that a generation of lazy politicians have responded to every fashionable concern by dictating that it must be added to the school curriculum. No one can reasonably disagree with creative education, but politics is about difficult trade-offs. Unless they're willing to tell us what schools should teach less of, we should treat it with disdain. Better to give teachers a bit more freedom to teach.

They think there's an 'urgent' need to 'rebalance' regional arts funding. It's funny what politicians think is and isn't urgent. Housebuilding? Can wait. Regional arts funding? Right on it. But really, what silly parochialism. London's institutions aren't local, they're global. You can't balance the British Museum against local museums in the north. The BM is a benefit to the whole world. There is, however, a chronic shortage of funding for regional museums. But neither party wants to address that, because they choose to blame local governments. Local government in the UK is dependent on central government for most of its funding, and has little freedom of action once it's carried out statutory duties. It exists mainly to shield national government from responsibility for poor local services.

The most stupid part of Labour's cultural charter is their commitment to 'robust' protection of intellectual property. It's already far too robustly protected, to the benefit of vested corporate interests rather than struggling artists. Patents and copyrights now act as a tax on creativity and innovation. But protecting special interests that benefit from copyright (or think they might in future) might win a few votes. No one is voting the common interest, so principles be damned. 

The Conservatives say almost nothing about culture. To be fair, their great cultural achievement in office has been to eschew the frenetic micro-management that characterised the previous Labour government. Benign neglect is an under-rated virtue. I'm not being facetious; they really deserve credit for this. The manifesto commits them to maintain free admission, which is unhelpful when they're also cutting funding. It reduces museums' freedom to maneuver in the context of reduced funding, which is their fault, whilst taking credit themselves for the benefit of free admission. Politicians legislating for free admission without funding it is grotesque. The Conservatives also want a 'great exhibition' in the north, which is the most feeble PR response to calls for increased regional arts funding I've heard. PR is also behind the Conservatives' expansion of tax breaks to fund acquisitions, which is bad policy but effective spin. That deserves a separate post later; it's not as good as it seems. I've said less about the Conservatives because they've had less to say about culture, not because they're necessarily a better option. Neither party offers much, and what they do offer isn't good. Rather a microcosm of the whole election, I think.

The response to the election debates from the cultural sector has been predictable and clueless. They kid themselves that they're being politically savvy by promising to deliver what they think politicians want: good value and economic growth for the right, social inclusion for the left. They've promised the same for a generation, but the same sort of people still go to museums, and the same sort of people don't. The economic growth argument is nonsense, and they know it. All spending has a multiplier effect, and the cultural industries don't have the biggest multiplier. Governments can get better value elsewhere. In boom times it justified a few extra pounds of spending, perhaps. But today they've made their own argument for defunding. 

The argument they all shy away from is the argument about why culture matters at all. They seem to think it's naive to imagine that it'll have any effect, though I suspect it's because they don't know how to make it. One thing's for sure. If all they can offer is dishonest claims about value for money and hollow promises about social inclusion, they don't deserve political attention or government funding.

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