BBC Orchestras (Disbandment)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:50 am on 27th June 1980.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 11:50 am, 27th June 1980

I start with what I hope will not be seen as too pompous a disclaimer. As the House will have recognised from the speech by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), the Select Committee on Scottish affairs took evidence from Mr. Ian Trethowan and other senior people in the BBC about the effects of the cuts in Scotland. That was an information-gathering exercise, The Committee did not reach any formal conclusion. However, what I am about to say may represent the views of many of those on the Committee. The fact that I am the chairman of the Select Committee does not mean that I am speaking formally on behalf of the Committee. I speak only for myself.

In my view, there is widespread dismay and considerable disquiet about the basis of the decision to disband the Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the BBC's planning. That orchestra has long been an integral part of the musical scene in Scotland. It is one of only two full-time symphony orchestras. Its removal, by any stretch of the imagination, will leave a substantial gap in the musical life of the country. It will kill off 69 jobs. That cannot be done without causing a considerable blow to the range and depth of musical activity in Scotland.

Apart from the direct loss of jobs, there will be a multiplier effect which has been well-documented in the Select Committee's evidence and in the debate in Scotland. The Scottish Symphony Orchestra, because it was a house orchestra with perhaps not the same financial constraints as other orchestras, was able to air new Scottish works which no other orchestra in Scotland was able to do. It was a training ground for some extremely distinguished conductors. That perhaps underlines the importance and value of the orchestra. James Loughran, Alex Gibson, Colin Davis and Simon Rattle are names which immediately spring to mind.

The removal of this orchestra will have a considerable impact on the teaching of music in schools. Anyone who has read the written evidence submitted to the Select Committee by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama will see how serious the loss will be because, in terms of its teaching effort, particularly in the woodwind and percusion section, it was dependent on people with full-time jobs with the SSO.

I have lived most of my life in the West of Scotland and I think that that area particularly will suffer. The orchestra was based in Glasgow. In Scotland there is an East-West split just as there is a North-South split in Great Britain as a whole. The cultural life of Scotland will be hit and impoverished by the disbandment of the SSO. It is not just 69 redundancies. We have a new surge of redundancies in the West of Scotland and a 69-job loss will be accorded merely half an inch in the local press. The qualitative effect of these specialist jobs will be sadly missed in the area.

Pat Ramsay, the controller of BBC Scotland, in reply to a question from a member of the Select Committee, managed to make the masterly understatement: It is certainly very difficult to replace an orchestra once it has gone. I believe that if the BBC does the deed, Mr. Ramsay, on that at least, will be proved right. It will be very hard to fill the gap or to put the pieces together again. I think that would be common ground among all Members of Parliament representing Scottish seats, irrespective of party.

I am not insensitive to the difficulties of the BBC. I know that it got £34 for the colour licence fee when it wanted £41 and that it is frozen for two years. I think that the BBC will face a considerable crisis even if it gets the cuts that it wants. The BBC has said that it has to find £130 million immediately in cuts. That figure is based on an inflation rate of 16½ per cent. from April 1980 and 12½ per cent. from April 1981. I make no particular political point, for this may be true whatever Government are in power, but it is irrefutable that there is no hope of those inflation figures being reached in the immediate future. The BBC will have to hack again and hack hard at what remains after the present round of cuts.

One of the interesting by-products of the evidence given to the Select Committee was the interchange between the Committee and Mr. Pat Ramsay in which he made it clear that, if the BBC had its calculations marginally wrong and had to find another £10 million or £12 million in cuts immediately, he had an understanding, which he could make stick, that the cuts would fall not in Scotland but in London. There were slightly choked gasps from some of his colleagues when he said that, but it is on the record. We in Scotland have noted that very carefully. Most of us suspect that that further adjustment—a nice euphemism—cannot be far behind in terms of BBC policy.

The Minister said that there had not been much protest in the debate about the level of the licence fee. I made the point in an intervention, and I repeat it, that we are trying to talk constructively about alternative methods of funding given the difficulties of the licence fee machinery and the political pressures involved. But for all that, as I have some critical comments to make of the BBC, I believe that we cannot run a service of the kind that I demand and expect from the BBC on the present financial base.

This morning I bought The Times for 20p and paid 16p for a cup of coffee in the House of Commons Cafeteria. When I think that my colour television licence fee costs probably 9p or 10p a day, I regard it as not just a good buy but an extremely cheap buy. However cynical and jaundiced I may be about BBC output, I get more enjoyment from it than I get from the average cup of coffee in the House of Commons Cafeteria.

It has been suggested to me on a number of occasions that we should go for an index-linked licence fee. I do not favour that. Index-linking is a dangerous mechanism to build into our economic system. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) and others that we should look towards a buffer body on the pattern of the University Grants Committee to protect the independence of the BBC which is already heavily challenged by escalating inflation and the constant political hassle which is coming from its inadequate financial base. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) said, if we funded the BBC from general taxation across the board, we would take away many of the distorting pressures which encourage hon. Members on both sides of the House to be parsimonious with the BBC's financing. We must do something about that in the long term.

I turn now to what we must do in the short term about the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the present round of cuts. My appeal, even at this eleventh hour, is that the BBC should look again at its priorities. The cut in Scotland was 7 per cent. across the board. Like the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East I do not accept that it is impossible to do it across the board. The BBC, in its memorandum to the Select Committee, suggested that was to betray a misunderstanding of how broadcasting works. That is a misunderstanding shared by many people who are professionally involved in broadcasting. I do not believe that it is a misunderstanding at all. It would be better to ask for contributions from every Department than to amputate in one area alone. I notice that Mr. Ramsay said that it was better to take off a couple of fingers than an eighth of an inch of skin all round. That may very well be. It is an unpleasant metaphor. However, it is special pleading. The lingering doubt in all Scottish Members' minds is that it wanted to lop off those fingers and it was not through necessity.

I do not take the view that it is an easy equation—for example, if we eliminated the duplication of sports programmes, got rid of Radio Scotland, which has only 6 per cent. of the radio audience and which costs £4 million a year to run, or did not buy "The Sound of Music" for £2 million, it would not be necessary to make these other cuts. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central the admirable news that, according to the evidence to the Select Committee on Scottish affairs, he has only eight, not 10, other outings for Maria across the hills. It is perhaps a rather depressing spectacle, but it is slightly better than he thought.

I accept that these are things that it is easy to say could have happened. It is probably much more complicated. But for all that, I believe that we could find the money on a much more equitable basis. We are left with the unfortunate feeling that came from the Select Committee evidence and the Minister's speech: that the BBC management positively wanted to get rid of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and that it was not financial stringency at all; that that was the cover, the excuse, but it was not the root cause.

I want very briefly to make my protest against the kind of arguments which have come through again and again in the BBC's statements, which are arguments about centres of excellence, and centres which should be localised within the headquarters in London. The point was very well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton when he said that this is a deeply mistaken policy which will lead to distortion and ultimately the inability to maintain standards. I know that the BBC does not like being in the patronage game. It has made that very clear. It wants to see itself as a television and radio production company simpliciter. But I believe that that is a betrayal and a departure from well-established BBC practices that would be a tragedy.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton that the kind of argument which is put, perhaps, in the phrase "They are not a very good band, anyway", when referring to the SSO, is an entirely false argument to use in the present context.

It may well be that we are being over sensitive, but in the Select Committee on Scottsh Affairs, when I, as it happened, asked Mr. Ramsay whether, if he suddenly was given the £600,000 back—he is, after all, the controller of BBC Scotland—he would save the SSO, we got the following remarkable answer: That is a very interesting thought. I would want at least a week's notice of that question, because to save the Symphony Orchestra would be one's initial immediate and pleasing reaction, but I cannot say whether, because I have not looked at the options, in fact if somebody said 'Here is £600,000', I would spend it on a very expensive way of providing music. It may be an expensive way of providing music if one takes the very narrow, selfish, commercial criterion. But given the broader, wider charter commitment of the BBC and considering the cultural needs of an area such as Scotland, which the SSO serves, I believe that that £600,000 should have been found and devoted to saving this orchestra.

So the first answer is that the BBC ought to reconsider even now. If it will not do so, the second best—but it is a long way behind—is that it ought to give time and ought to be a great deal more generous to those who are attempting to find alternative funding. Many energetic efforts are being made in relation to the banks and the oil companies. There is a lot of money at present in the Scottish economy in certain sectors. Possibly the Government, having specifically rejected a windfall profits tax in their last Budget Statement, could allow us to have some small cultural contribution from those who have been spared that particular impost.

If the BBC were to give a bit more, particularly time, to see whether that is practicable, that, at least, would be some contribution. But the best is that the SSO should remain in-house, remain an orchestra in the BBC livery, doing its best to maintain the extraordinarily valuable teaching and cultural service that it provides throughout Scotland. The unthinkable would be for it to disappear now and, therefore, as the BBC concedes, for ever, because that would be a betrayal of everything that the BBC ought to be trying to maintain in terms of its own history. The charter commitment is to have full regard for the culture, language and interests of Scotland. Dr. Roger Young, the chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, a full governor of the BBC, said to the Select Committee: We are doing some damage to that broad commitment by disbanding the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Of course he is, and that is cheeseparing that I believe that we cannot afford.

It is perhaps a small retreat, but it is a retreat from the high standards of the past, and once one starts to retreat, where does one end up? It seems to me that we could end up with the BBC being just another production company dominated by audience ratings and commercial judgments. That would be a very tragic situation. It would be a signficant defeat for the whole concept of public service broadcasting and for the BBC's wider social and cultural role.

I believe that the BBC is not prepared to think again. By persisting in its attitude it will damage the musical life of Scotland severely and permanently. But, more importantly from the BBC's point of view, it will damage itself.