Government Support for the Arts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th April 1965.

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Photo of Miss Jennie Lee Miss Jennie Lee , Cannock 12:00 am, 27th April 1965

We are all indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) for giving us an opportunity this afternoon to discuss the arts. I think the White Paper has been received by most of the Press and public opinion with great courtesy and great kindness. I have no quarrel at all with some of the criticism. Indeed, I would have been alarmed if there had been an atmosphere created that this White Paper set out the full policy for the future of British art.

What we say quite clearly in it is that this is a beginning. But there are different kinds of criticism, and my sympathies went out to the right hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Ramsden) because obviously in speaking from the Opposition Front Bench he had to do his best and had to make out so far as he could a comparison showing that there had been no progress and that the attitude of the present Government and provisions and promises of the present Government were virtually no different from what had happened before.

One of the first things I did on being asked to investigate the state of the arts was to ask for a chart to be prepared for me, fairly, I think, going over the full period during which hon. Members opposite were responsible. I should not have thought it fair or responsible for me to have tried to judge hon. Members opposite by what they had done in any one month, or three months, or even a year, but I think it perfectly fair that I should bring to the House a chart which sets out all 13 years from 1951 onwards when it was the privilege and responsibility of hon. Members opposite to look at the arts policy of this country.

I have the chart here. It shows a general graph of provision for the Arts Council including provision for Covent Garden. I have the whole set of figures set out. Although I shall not quote all of them, I shall quote one or two to illustrate my point. If hon. Members opposite want the chart put into the Library I shall be happy to oblige. I found that 1951, the year when hon. Members opposite went into office, was a crisis year, a year of great economic difficulties; but I do not think any hon. Member would say that the pound was in a more perilous position in 1951 than last autumn when the present Government took over. When hon. Members opposite went into office in 1951 their excuse for not dealing with the arts was that there was an economic crisis. Compare the attitude of the two parties. In the autumn of last year and the first months of this year, in spite of all the difficulties and preoccupations of the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a 30 per cent. increase was conceded to the Arts Council—£665,000 extra on its grant compared with the previous year.

It is to fair to see how hon. Members opposite handled a crisis situation. In 1951 there was no increase for the Arts Council. Instead there was a decrease of £5,000. Obviously in a crisis the first thing that had to be cut was the arts. We, even in a crisis, seek to give the arts priority, but hon. Members opposite said, "We can chisel away £5,000." When the country had had the advantage of Conservative rule not for six months but for a whole year, hon. Members stepped up the grant made to the Arts Council. They stepped it up by an amount slightly less than one-fifth of what the present Government have given in this crisis year. Having taken that adventurous step, hon. Members opposite obviously thought that they had gone too far, so in the following year they made a decrease of £10,000.

We can go through this chart. It shows that although we got off the ground in a matter of weeks after taking office, produced a White Paper and acted upon it well within six months, it took hon. Members opposite over six years even to begin to get off the ground. In 1954–55 there was a decrease of £10,000. That was put back with an additional £25,000 the following year. There was a daring £45,000 increase the following year, then £68,000, then £55,000. Then hon. Members opposite thought that they had gone much too far.