Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 3:53 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, my introduction to this place was prefaced with the most pleasant prophecies: that I would be given a very warm welcome; that the staff would go to great pains to help with everything from map reading, with which I still struggle, to paper procurement. So it has been. In addition to being both humbled and honoured to be here, I feel hugely grateful for all the kindness and help that I have experienced.

It is for me also rather extraordinary as a composer to be following in the footsteps of musicians such as Lord Menuhin of Stoke D’Abernon and my godfather, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh, whose centenary the world of music is currently celebrating. As a young chorister at Westminster Cathedral, I sang in the first performance of the Britten “Missa Brevis” and accompanied my father, Lennox, to rehearsals of his violin concerto with Menuhin. I know that both Benjamin Britten and Yehudi Menuhin would passionately endorse the sentiments I am about to embrace. The gracious Speech touched on culture, education and aspiration; speaking about music and the arts is indeed a theme I would like to explore.

First, let me take your Lordships to the Welsh Marches, that beautiful, wild but lyrical countryside so loved by Kilvert and Housman that forms the border between England and Wales and where, for the past 35 years, I have naturally and gradually build up a small farm near the town of Knighton. I have seen this community severely challenged in recent years by job losses and the difficulties that farmers have faced, not least in the recent snow. Yet despite these tribulations, there is always a smile on local faces. There certainly was a smile when, many years ago, we bought our first sheep at auction. The late and much lamented Nora Ephron, writer of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally”, who was staying with us at the time, got so excited by the bidding that she waved happily across the ring to my wife, who waved back. This was much to the delight of the auctioneer, who treated these exuberant celebrations as a portent of an early Christmas and as further bids. Our first sheep were therefore the most expensive we have ever bought.

More seriously, current concerns in this part of the world concentrate on maintaining the important tourism that so feeds an area rich in wonderful walking. The spine of Offa’s Dyke runs through the town. In many ways, communities like this present a microcosm of the conundrums with which your Lordships and the Government have to wrestle. For instance, because of the stunning landscape and the tourism it attracts there is considerable concern over the prospect of many marching pylons and huge wind turbines bespotting the horizon. The balance between the need for renewable energy and the preservation of a landscape of great cultural significance is as problematic as the balance between the Government’s desire to see more localism and their overruling of local opinion in matters of planning.

Just over the hill from Knighton lies the town of Presteigne, which, astonishingly, boasts a successful annual festival of largely contemporary music. This organisation operates on the breadline, and sometimes below it, yet the need—the hunger—for cultural nourishment could not be more manifest, especially at times like this. In great art, as, for many, in religion, we find comfort and solace but also the means to see ourselves and inside ourselves more clearly. On my travels around the world, I got to know this refrain well: “We envy you your National Health Service and the BBC”—for whom, by the way, I have broadcast for some 40 years. But now a third cause of envy is cited: the thrilling cultural experiences that this country offers.

Recently, the Culture Secretary told us that we must celebrate the money-spinning success of our cultural organisations. I agree with her that for too long we have failed to spell out just what a good investment the arts are. For much less than 0.1% of government expenditure the arts return 0.4% of GDP, according to recent statistics from the Centre for Economics and Business Research. That is a £7 return for every £1 invested. If the Chancellor, or indeed us lesser mortals, the ordinary savers, could reap this kind of return in all our dealings, we would be rushing to invest. The creative economy employs 2.5 million people and growth in this sector runs at four times the national average.

While this fiscal approach might be encouraging, there is another unquantifiable but even more important return on investment in the arts and arts education: the social dividend that leads to a more civilised and cohesive society. Aspiration cannot be realised without education, and education can be effective only if supported by opportunity. You cannot teach someone to play the violin without a violin. Some years ago, I helped to organise what we call an amnesty on instruments. The idea was that parents and friends would search their cupboards not for unwanted knives and weapons but for unwanted or unused musical instruments and hand them into their local school. As a result, I had a letter from a small girl aged about eight who said that now she had her violin she no longer got into a rage because she could talk through and to her violin. Her teachers confirmed that her ferocious tantrums had almost entirely disappeared.

Noble Lords may know of the work of the Koestler Trust, which provides artistic opportunities for prisoners, be it drawing, writing, painting or music. When I was a trustee of this admirable organisation, I had a letter from a man who wrote to thank us for providing a guitar. His final sentences really shook me. “The guitar, and learning to play it, has transformed my life. If I had had this instrument when I was a teenager, and the means it gives me to express myself, I very much doubt that I would now be doing life for murder”.

Your Lordships may have seen the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet Hoo! project on television three or four years ago in which disadvantaged children and teenagers in Birmingham took part in a production of “Romeo and Juliet”. Having initially been somewhat contemptuous of the notion of ballet, these kids, many in minor trouble with the police, found themselves in awe of the athleticism and fitness of the dancers and responded obsessively and proudly to the rigours of a disciplined rehearsal timetable. You could see that they really meant it when they described it as a life-changing experience. I know that this is probably an impossible vision, but I dream of a world where every child has the opportunity to find self-expression through music, writing and the visual and dramatic arts.

Another problem with confining oneself to the financial rewards of cultural investment is that we tend to focus on the big players, great though they are. The National Theatre, Tate Modern, the Royal Opera

House, for example, are precisely the institutions that can bolster their state support with philanthropic gifts, but the area I am worried about is the seedbed for those institutions: regional and small-scale theatre, dance and music organisations, where young talent can be fostered before it takes to the main stage, and the colleges that train the orchestras and soloists, the dancers, actors, composers and artists of tomorrow. This is also the place, as Sir Nicholas Hytner has pointed out, where experiment and risk take place. When a highly acclaimed chamber group such as the Nash Ensemble is unable to find money for commissioning new music, we must acknowledge that there is a vacuum in the system, especially for composers.

So while there is much to celebrate, there is also much to do. Indeed, speaking as a composer, I would say that one of the most important aspects of creativity is self-criticism, careful and honest analysis, so that one constantly seeks to improve. In relation to the work of Parliament, that is surely the great role of this House, a role I have been privileged and impressed to observe. Now that I have concluded my maiden speech, it is my aspiration to contribute to that role in as many ways as possible.