The Arts

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:10 am on 20th June 1986.

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Photo of Mr Norman Buchan Mr Norman Buchan , Paisley South 10:10 am, 20th June 1986

I was dealing with some of the material that the Minister presented, but of course performance is the end point of our discussions. I should much prefer to deal with real things that matter—the end product—than the funds with which they are produced. If the hon. Gentleman does not believe that the squeeze on theatre and on music does not have its consequences in terms of artistic production, he is far adrift.

My brother writes plays, especially for the amateur theatre. He now writes them for "three male and two female" or "four male and one female" parts. That is the extent of the squeeze. I went to see the recent production of "Antony and Cleopatra" with Redgrave herself, but it was not a production which would have stood in terms of scale with the Beerbohm Trees of the past. All theatres are cutting, except the massive tourist—orientated blockbusters, such as "Chess".

The Government's response is private patronage and sponsorship. The most frightening thing that the Government have said—the Minister has repeated it Often—is that any future expansion or development must come from the private sector. Will the Minister confirm that he means that there will be a standstill in the real level of public spending? That is the implication of what he has said. If that happens, we shall be in immense difficulties. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel)—mentioned one—the effect on the arts.

The Opposition accept the case for multiple sources of funding—from local authorities, Government, box offices and aspects of sponsorship. Hon. Members know that I oppose certain forms of sponsorship such as that of tobacco companies but, by and large, I am not against multiple funding. On the contrary. I believe that, although multiplicity is not a substitute for more formal methods of maintaining the freedom of the artist, it can help to retain a sense and, to a considerable extent, an actuality of such freedom. That is now being reduced by the Government's squeeze on public spending, their cuts in local authority spending and their cutting of the real value of central funding. That is making a mockery of any freedom.

When the Minister speaks of my policy as beginning to reject the arm's length of Government, he forgets that a squeeze on funding and a push towards sponsorship can have the same effect. No theatre that relies on sponsorship can afford to put on a play that offends its sponsor. We are witnessing an enforced scampering after sponsorship in a bid for survival, a quest for alternative sources of funding and the need to avoid risk and innovation to secure a box office response. That is turning arts administrators into fund raisers rather than planners, innovators and developers and it has begun to distort the content of the work that is produced. The new, the innovative and the challenging will be at risk.

There was a conference on sponsorship of the visual arts at the Tate Gallery last year at which one of the sponsors explained his multinational firm's attitude to sponsorship. His comments were revealing and bland. He said: We prefer to sponsor exhibitions with which we feel confortable. He meant the glamorous and the safe rather than the innovative, the risky and the adventurous. There is already a distortion, if not censorship, therefore. We therefore oppose the concept advanced by the Minister and the Government that sponsorship is an alternative to proper Government funding of future developments.

The problems that face the arts are easily categorised. They are underfunded. There is far too narrow a concept of what are the arts. There is a narrowness of concept about what is high culture and what is popular. There is a lack of esteem for the arts, as is exemplified by the Government's behaviour today. It is inevitably establishment—London dominated— not London-dominated. When the Arts Council produced "The Glory of the Garden", it should have realised that we are not dealing just with geographical differences and separation from the South Bank. Brixton and Hackney are just as far away from the South Bank as Warrington and Manchester. The structure of the arts organisation is elitist. There is nothing elitist about "Fidelio"—it is a marvelous revolutionary opera but there is a great deal that is elitist in the ambience of Covent garden and in the administration of the arts.

How do we cope with that? First, the arts are underfunded. There is only one answer—there must be substantially more funding. If one looks at the state of the disrepair of our national museums and galleries, such as the National Gallery, the British museum and the Victoria and Albert museum, and if one considers that some are being forced to make admission charges to provide funding, it is clear that between £35 million and £45 million needs to be spent over the next three years to bring them into a decent state of repair. When one considers the cuts in central funding and the Arts Council over the years., it is clear that we need to double central funding, although the Minister pokes fun at that phrase. Certainly £140 million would be needed to bring some of our regional and national theatres and music organisations back into full proper use. I do not deny the need for a major injection of funds for that.

A major element of' that injection will come from the restoration of local government funding. We intend to impose a statutory obligation on local authorities to

provide for the arts, entertainment and museums, rather than through a mandatory rate, as sometimes the Labour party has suggested. An element for the arts and for museums should be added to the rate support grant for libraries as encouragement and support for local authorities. As a consequence of that, we shall ask each local authority to undertake a process of consultation with all interested bodies, including arts organisations, trade unions and community organisations, and with local neighbouring authorities, and to publish a plan for the development of the arts in their areas.

We have been dealing with the arts in too narrow a way. The answer to that is to bring all the arts under a single Ministry. We can no longer keep the main cultural fare of our people, broadcasting and films, separate from a Ministry of the arts. That is nonsense. Ministers for the arts or for culture in western Europe do not understand why broadcasting, films and popular arts are not brought under one Ministry in the United Kingdom. We must bring them under a unified Ministry.

Moreover, films, television, independent production, video, young people doing their own thing in studios, and popular music are a single entity, which we have come to refer to as the culture industries. We must broaden the concept of the arts. We can no longer separate some art for them and some for us. We must therefore include the popular arts

. We must recognise that the best way to restore esteem for the arts is to have a Minister in charge of arts and communications, including publications and the printed word, in the Cabinet as of right. The question of access and participation is not solved by central planning alone. I cannot understand why my policy that the major disbursement of funds should go to the regions has been attacked as centralist. That makes no sense to me. It is the opposite of centralising because it gives power to the regions, which know better than 105 Piccadilly, with the greatest of respect to it.

The Minister says that I am smashing the arm's length principle in relation to our national institutions by saying that they should be funded directly from the Ministry. First, the principle has already been dramatically weakened by the Priestley intervention, which I am not criticising, involving direct Government funding. Secondly, no Arts Council has the freedom to decide not to give funding to one or other of our national institutions. Imagine the Arts Council saying, "We have decided to abolish the National Theatre, so we are giving it no money." That is nonsense. Thirdly, the best freedom we can give to our national institutions, as to our theatres, is sufficient funding to give them the courage to put on the productions they choose, instead of forcing them to scramble for funds and sponsors.

I am not alone in my view, but hacked by the all-party Education, Science and Arts Committee. I discovered only in the past 48 hours that it had come to the same conclusion as me. Recommendation 17 of the Committee's report on "Public and Private Funding of the Arts" states: In conjunction with the Minister, the Arts Council should make special arrangements to administer a separate grant for the national companies as earmarked by the Minister,. From my experience in other Departments, the correct way to deal with the arts is for major funding to go to strengthen regional arts development bodies, in place of the regional arts associations, for national institutions to be funded by the Minister, and for it to be a statutory right of the new Arts Council to discuss and negotiate with the Minister about that. That worked perfectly satisfactorily with other Departments such as Agriculture, in the old days, and is the best democratic process for the arts.

The Arts Council should not be appointed by the Minister, because that means that it plays footsy with him and becomes his instrument. It should be elected directly from the regions and the arts if it is to be a powerful, independent voice, speaking for the arts to the Minister. If that is called smashing the arm's length principle and centralising, I do not know what is not.

The present genuine crisis in the arts is a parallel to the crisis facing Britain as a whole. It is a deep basic crisis, not only of politics and economics, but of philosophy, ideas and values. We have adopted values unparalleled since the late 1930s. The whole settled good of the past half century of a commitment to social concern and community values has been replaced by a cash-based ideology, both sharper and cruder than pre-Victorian times. We cannot answer that assault on our values merely by campaigning on policy or examining section 22 of a Social Security Act. At present there is a clash of values.

We in the Labour party want to develop policy-making as an expression of the new and better society which we wish to achieve. However, if we are fully to involve the imagination and commitment of our people as a whole in the creation of a better society, we must also engage in the battle of ideas. Without that, no Government will be backed by a radical drive from the people for the sort of change that we need, and the elan that is necessary to keep us on course.

For that reason, we as Socialists have always cherished the artist. It is not because we demand of them the enforced commitment to a particular set of values, but because we recognise that artists provoke questioning, remove our blinkers, awaken compassion and fray at the nerve edge of our consciousness and awareness. Therefore, artists frequently set the agenda for which we as Socialists can provide the ultimate answers. That is why we have a common purpose with artists. Artists speak the truth as they see it and we seek to provide answers to the problems that their questioning has posed. Artists let us see more clearly the real nature of the present crisis because, above all, they deal with it as it touches the individual. Therefore, they emphasise the need for change even more clearly and sharply than the propagandists.