Can the arts world learn to love the Tories?
As the Government injects 1.57bn into arts and culture, Alexander Larman considers the reactions from those in the industry
The mood music had been dire for weeks. As I have written before, it was beginning to look as if virtually every single large-scale performing arts company or venue was doomed to failure. Major theatres such as the Nuffield in Southampton, the Theatre Royal in Norwich and Haymarket in Leicester either had had to close or were on the brink of making most of their staff redundant. Even the National in London has had to lay off all of their front of house staff, unable to extend their furlough period. It seemed as if theatre, concerts and opera were entirely doomed.
The arts industry, which had been complaining with different degrees of intelligence and passion about what was happening to it, was somewhat taken by surprise by the degree of largesse that the government’s bailout has represented
The government, led by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, were also giving a good impression of not especially caring whether a sector primarily full of those who didn’t vote Conservative went under or not. Dowden seemed, rightly or wrongly, to be more concerned as to whether Premier League football could be held again, as that seemed to be more in keeping with the populist, bread and circuses platform on which the Tories had won an election last December. Unlike the days of the Cameron administration – when George Osborne and Michael Gove seemed genuinely interested in the arts, even going so far as to have annual holidays at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, and the long-serving and affable Ed Vaizey was famously beloved by the cultural establishment at large – Boris Johnson’s government seemed to have little interest in subsidising the industry with the size of bail-out that it needed.
This was greeted by writers, actors and artistic directors with genuine fear and anger, seasoned with a canny eye on being seen to say the right (i.e anti-Tory) things. At a time when Sir Keir Starmer’s most notable engagement with the arts world since becoming leader was to fire Rebecca Long-Bailey for approvingly tweeting a link to an interview with the actress Maxine Peake in which she repeated an anti-semitic slur, there has been a definite void in politics for voices speaking up on behalf of the cultural world. The days in which the likes of Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn found themselves with a place to speak in favour of the government – or out against them – seem to have passed, perhaps reflecting the way in which theatre, especially, has changed in the past few decades. Once, playwrights like Sir David Hare wrote angry, anti-Conservative plays full of fire and fury; now, the government contemplated the opportunity to end the careers of the likes of Hare for good by letting the entire industry collapse.
As anyone who has seen the news will know, they did not, although it is widely rumoured that there were some voices in government less enamoured of the idea of handing out a bailout of over a billion pounds than others. Just as the furlough and self-employed assistance schemes have ended up being far more generous than most could have imagined, few could have imagined the largesse which a far from culturally-oriented government have now bestowed upon the industry. Although at the time of writing, it is not entirely clear how the money will be distributed (and, as Brice Stratford wrote recently the involvement of the Arts Council in the distribution of funds might be a cause for alarm rather than celebration), but jobs will be saved, venues will not have to close permanently and there will still be a performing arts industry in a post-coronavirus world, whenever that is. Given that it looked reasonably likely that the only shows that might have otherwise existed were the undemanding, tourist-focus likes of Mamma Mia! and The Phantom of the Opera, this represents a significant volte-face.
The arts industry, which had been complaining with different degrees of intelligence and passion about what was happening to it, was somewhat taken by surprise by the degree of largesse that the government’s bailout has represented. The government’s website contains a number of supportive statements from major cultural figures, some of which feel as if they have been made through gritted teeth. The playwright James Graham, who has been especially vocal about the dangers to the industry, commented that ‘I am so incredibly grateful that the government has listened to the outpouring of not only concerns but also of great passion from audiences and artists over the threat to a much-loved part of our national life…I am so relieved that Oliver Dowden, DCMS, and the Treasury recognise that this is a prize worth saving and celebrating’. Sir Simon Rattle, who has spoken vitriolically recently about what he feared was a lackadaisical attitude on the government’s attitude towards live music, described it as ‘wonderful news and a huge relief for us all’, saying ‘this generous investment is both enormously welcome and desperately needed. Now that our survival is no longer at risk, we can start rebuilding our cultural life.’
Rattle struck a slightly more pointed note when he observed that ‘it is important that these funds percolate from the grassroots up, so that the whole landscape can be nourished, and we hope it will be distributed as fast as possible. Preferably faster, as so many institutions and individual artists have been staring into the abyss.’ For many well-known actors, musicians and directors, the past few months have been difficult financially, with a large number of them enthusiastically taking on work that they once have eschewed as being beneath them; it has never been easier to get a big name to record an audiobook of a new title.
The well-known ones at least know that they will be able to resume their careers before too long. It is the unsung legions of behind-the-scenes workers who have struggled most, from the stagehands and front-of-house staff to the orchestra contractors and set decorators. Most of these men and women were hardly well-off before, but were at least in paid employment. With this security having been removed, and alternative work hard to come by in the midst of a pandemic, many have been surviving on Universal Credit for the past few months and hoping, like Mr Micawber, that something will come up. Now, at last, it seems to have done so.
The news has divided the arts community. After the initial outpouring of relief, and gratitude expressed to Dowden and Rishi Sunak, once again retaining his status as the public-spirited and fiscally generous Tory that it is acceptable for those on the Left not merely to tolerate, but indeed to like, the carping began quite fast. It was suggested that the £1.57 billion in a mixture of grants and loans may not have been as ‘world-leading’ as the government claimed it was, and that the amount paled in comparison to what Germany and France have been said to have offered their cultural industries, respectively €50 billion and €7 billion. Others have denied this, noting that those grants are being allocated across a vastly wider spectrum, and also include money that has been paid out here in the form of the self-employed grants that many, if not all, arts practitioners have had access to.
There have also been the usual grumblings. From the Left, the predictable songs have been sung. ‘Not enough money’. ‘Too many places for it to go.’ ‘Too late to save many of the institutions that have gone under’. And from the Right, the time-honoured chant of the free marketeer has been heard. ‘Why is the government spending taxpayers’ money on institutions that hate them? Why should we be subsidising left-wingers, who won’t thank us or them for it, and wasting a vast amount of cash on industries that don’t deserve a penny of public subsidy?’ Those in the centre, who meekly suggest compromise – that the government’s apparent slowness in offering financial assistance might have been dictated by working out an all-encompassing solution, and that it is vitally important for the country’s cultural and economic infrastructure that the performing arts are allowed to flourish, even if this is approached purely on a hard-nosed financial basis – are not finding that their points are yet being listened to with any particular interest, although they might find a hearing before too long.
As with so much that has occurred in the past few months, it is impossible to make predictions as to the future. Yet one thing is certain. Just as Boris Johnson’s personal gratitude to the NHS for saving his life will undoubtedly lead to a renewed commitment to the Tories becoming the party of the National Health Service, sincerely or otherwise, so it will now be hard for leading figures in the arts, who have made such public statements of praise and gratitude for the government, to row back from their words and resume business as usual when it comes to Tory-bashing.
While Keir Starmer’s apparent desire to drag Labour away from the left has led to his apparently behaving as one might have imagined a post-Thatcher political leader to, especially when it comes to law and order, there is now the deliciously unexpected possibility, especially in a Sunak-led Conservative administration, that the next election will be fought, at least partially, on the Tories being the party of the arts and culture industries, with a billion and a half reasons why this is the case.
While it seems too much of a stretch to imagine the likes of Rufus Norris and Kwame Kwei-Armah reluctantly campaigning for the Conservatives in 2024, stranger things have happened: Jeremy Clarkson, after all, recently announced his intention to vote Labour for the first time in 2024, given his disillusion with the government. One can only hope that, once the theatres reopen, a writer as talented as James Graham can get a play out of it, although it remains true that any drama, with however good a cast, can never be as surprising as the events taking place around us on an everyday basis.
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