Why 14 Years Of Tory Rule Have Left Britain’s Arts Sector In Tatters

The fishing industry contributes barely £1bn to the British economy. That is 0.03% of GDP. Put it another way: it is roughly equivalent in size to visual effects, a sub-category of a category of the creative industries.

Conservative ministers made repeated visits to the nation’s ports to extol the virtues of an almost moribund trade. By contrast, a sector that has been the fastest growing for two decades, that contributes more than £120bn, that in other countries would be seen as an essential component of the good society, was largely seen as an afterthought.

The 14 years of Tory rule constitute a stunning missed opportunity to seize on one of Britain’s few internationally renowned assets – its creativity.

The government did step in to save organisations from disaster during the pandemic; it did, early on, extend its successful system of tax credits from film and TV to other cultural forms. It did beat the drum for the regions, if spasmodically. Set against that, however, was a series of failures, made in Whitehall.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is rarely seen as a destination of choice. Apart from Chris Smith in the early Blair years, few have left their mark. Under the Tories, 12 culture secretaries in 14 years invites ridicule. None emerges well. Jeremy Hunt, the first, offered up even greater cuts than the chancellor George Osborne could stomach. (The total agreed was already swingeing.) He was followed by Maria Miller, who could not name anything she had seen at the British Museum beyond the mummies. Sajid Javid had little time for the “luvvies”. Karen Bradley: who was she? John Whittingdale was driven by loathing of the BBC. Matt Hancock will be remembered for his private life; paradoxically, he was one of the better incumbents, advocating strongly for the digital and music briefs.

While the commercial creative industries fared less badly, they could also have achieved so much more if supported by a more holistic approach. Two areas of policy undermined what good work was being done: the almost complete removal of creative education from the classroom, and Brexit. The damage they have already caused in accessing talent at home and abroad will take a generation to redress.

In January 2010, four months before the election that brought the Tories to power in a coalition with the Lib Dems, Jeremy Hunt promised a “golden age for the arts”. A “US-style culture of philanthropy” would take the strain from the public purse, releasing new cash and a new era of entrepreneurialism. Amid the warnings of a “credit crunch”, Hunt talked of Treasury civil servants “getting their teeth” into ministerial budgets. Arts Council and other non-governmental funding bodies would slash their costs, becoming “leaner, though not meaner”.

Matt Hancock, surprisingly, did more for the arts than many of his colleagues. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

In one fell swoop, the arts sector suffered a 21% cut in real terms, while 30% was removed local authority budgets. Arts Council England (ACE) was reduced in size and told not to make political interventions. Its grant, which has been reduced to just over £450m, constitutes less than 0.05% of total government spending. Or rather, a rounding up exercise on the average overspend on a single aircraft carrier.

In 2014, a group of leaders established the Creative Industries Federation. I was its founding chief executive. The aim was to present a different, more forthright face to government. Osborne was guest of honour at its launch. In the years that followed, data were presented, arguments made, over and again. The message was direct: the creative industries produced more in gross value added than aerospace, automotive and life sciences combined. They are essential, not nice to have. So why, despite all these efforts, has the sector struggled so much? It has not always been the government’s fault. Arts leaders tended to come across as both shrill and unctuous. Their lobbying was less effective than the motor industry over Brexit or the hospitality sector during Covid. The arguments have a certain circularity. Osborne complained that too much emphasis was being laid on instrumental value rather than intrinsic. That was, however, the only language his officials understood.

Only in the UK perhaps would a sector which delivers so much to so many be constantly required to justify its existence. Britain has more pronounced regional disparities than equivalent countries. Through the Northern Powerhouse, Birmingham Engine and levelling up agenda, successive Conservative administrations talked the talk. The problem, as the debacle of HS2 demonstrated, has been follow-through. Investment in the region has been given in public flurries rather than as part of a wider strategy. The Cultural Investment Fund, designed to assist 70 deprived areas from Bradford to Basildon, totals a mere £50m overall.

The worst of many painful moments was Nadine Dorries’ “letter of instruction” in February 2022. In this first formal directive from a culture secretary in living memory, she ordered ACE to redirect £24m from London organisations to the regions. The defenestration of English National Opera grabbed the headlines. It was told that if it did not move out of the capital, it would lose its £17m of funding. In the end, a compromise was reached. Yet the saga symbolised the mutual distrust and the peremptory approach of ministers to what was supposed to be an arms-length body.

In January 2017, Sadiq Khan tried some gallows humour. Speaking at the CIF’s annual gala, the mayor of London noted that 96% of its members had voted in its survey to remain in the EU. “What I would like to know,” Khan said, scouring the vast atrium of the newly opened Design Museum, “is where are the other 4%?”

The cultural sector was still reeling from the referendum. It concluded, however, that it had no choice but to engage, assuming that some form of arrangement would be found to keep the UK linked to the customs union and single market. Yet, as the May and then Johnson governments pursued the hardest possible Brexit, the scale of the damage on a sector that relies on the free movement of talent became apparent. A report by the DCMS Select Committee in January 2018 set out the pitfalls. Withdrawal from the Creative Europe scheme deprived the sector of £160m of EU funding; the end of Erasmus+ education for UK students caused similar harm.

Jeremy Hunt, who proposed cuts that surprised even George Osborne, giving a speech at the Tate Modern in 2012. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The refusal to listen seriously to the creative sector is deeply engrained. Unlike in France, Germany and other countries where culture is openly embraced by politicians, in the UK, it has a tendency to embarrass politicians.

In my book Why the Germans Do It Better, I recall a story from April 2013. David Cameron was visiting Angela Merkel at her residence north of Berlin. On the Saturday evening, she invited a group of cultural and political figures with links to both countries. To break the ice, she talked about operas, theatres and museums she had visited. Even as chancellor, she would phone gallery directors on her mobile to request that she sneak into a particular exhibition. She asked Cameron what he had seen. He stuttered and said he liked watching TV, adding that he would have loved to go to concerts but feared being hounded by the press.

In October 2020, as the first 1,300 recipients of the pandemic Cultural Recovery Fund were being announced, a government advertisement appeared, depicting a ballet dancer tying up her shoes, alongside the caption: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber.” It was quickly withdrawn. Even so, it reflected deep-rooted prejudices. Arts education was dismissed throughout the Tory years as effete and inessential. The government became obsessed with STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – and driven by two goals: to deliver an education system to serve the jobs market and to meet global competition.

The flaws in the argument were clear. Competitive states such as Singapore and China were queueing up to send their next generation to British art schools; meanwhile expensive independent schools in the UK trumpeted their swanky theatre and music facilities on their prospectuses. On this, Labour is pointing in the right direction. The shadow culture secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, a former professional cellist, has been working with her education counterpart, Bridget Phillipson, on plans to reinstate creative subjects into the curriculum.

The sector may not be thriving, but it is good at surviving. Artistic directors point to more risk-averse commissioning and higher ticket prices. Very few theatres or museums have shut, which makes it harder to enumerate harm.

Under Labour, public finances will remain desperately tight for years to come. Britain is not about to rejoin the EU. The arrival of a different kind of government will not lead to exultation, more a sense of relief. Just a few steps in the right direction would go a long way to helping this weary sector rediscover its mojo.

John Kampfner was founder chair of Turner Contemporary; he is currently chair of the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration. This is an extract from the book The Conservative Effect, 2010-2024: 14 Wasted Years? edited by Anthony Seldon and Tom Egerton, published on 27 June by Cambridge University Press, priced £16.99

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