Dear Rishi, what about the arts?

The Tories appear to have no plan for the Arts Council

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We who consider ourselves “Creatives” — writers, artists, actors, dancers, singers, musicians and so on — tend to loathe the Conservative Party. By temperament, few of us are right-wing. You Tories have always seemed hostile to us. 

It doesn’t help when so many of you treat our vocations as mere subsidised hobbies. But you still have a chance to win our allegiance: we may loathe you, but we hate and fear the Arts Council, and are looking for someone to protect us from them, since we still need their patronage, for now.

Conservatives used to be intelligent patrons of the arts. In the 1930s, you had the most sophisticated cultural operation of any political organisation in a democratic country. Also, thanks to Alexander Korda’s film company, you had soft Tory propaganda in the cinemas — and audiences actually liked it. You peaked in 1941 with That Hamilton Woman, Winston Churchill’s favourite film. Then, being Tories, you bottled it.

Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942) and Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) are two of the greatest patriotic films ever made. But you thought they were “damaging to morale”. What were you thinking? That was when you began to lose the “culture war”. For 80 years you have been inept patrons of the arts, when you’ve bothered to make the effort at all.

Many Tories like to masquerade as posh. Fair enough. Creatives like to put on costumes too — some of us have even made it into an art. But you people have no talent for playing your role. Nobody believes in your pretence of noblesse oblige, and a lot of you don’t think even to pretend to have one. But if you care about power, patronage matters.

The two most effective arts patrons of the twentieth century were the cia and the French Communist Party. They understood what you Tories don’t: Creatives have far more influence and authority than politicians, legislators or economists. Real statesmen know not to neglect us, because we shape, guide and even control people’s dreams. 

Most Tories are nerds. As teenagers you spent Saturday nights in front of a bathroom mirror practising your first Budget Speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was how you would eventually get us back for not inviting you to our parties. But you don’t understand that most people don’t think in bullet points. They think principally in stories, images and symbols. This is why your policy papers end up being useless in terms of convincing anyone of anything, even when you’re right.

Nobody lives long enough to gain real wisdom purely through experience. People need fiction — especially comedy, drama and tragedy — to reflect the world for them, and help them illuminate reality. We Creatives don’t like criticism, but concede that critics are important: they teach people how to understand works of art; in reading critics’ judgements people eventually learn how to look at the world itself. Every effective ideologue knows this, and will seek to influence (or control) critics as well as creators.

You Tories have no effective mechanisms for enabling creative work, or paying for it, or even criticising it. This is one of the reasons why you always lose (even when you win elections and hold power for 13 years, you still manage to keep losing). You have zero control over the narratives that matter in terms of ensuring that you have a future.

We Creatives tend to divide you into two categories: “PPE-ists” and “Scrutonians”. 

When Oxford introduced the “Modern Greats” degree a century ago, focusing on Politics, Philosophy and Economics, it was meant to create a new administrative class for the United Kingdom. ppe-ists managed to lose the British Empire in less than a generation, yet they cut funding for the arts on the grounds of ineffectiveness. 

As for Scrutonians: we Creatives might not like the writings of Sir Roger Scruton, but we respect the man’s memory. At least he was cultured. You Scrutonians ape and parrot Sir Roger’s more cultured-sounding writings; your problem is, you never seem to do anything else. 

What good are Scrutonians to us Creatives when your vision of the arts stops at 1950? We like museums too, but you do nothing whatsoever to support those of us who are alive today. Instead, you complain ineffectually about the “woke takeover” of Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and other beloved national institutions. 

ppe-ists and Scrutonians alike think we Creatives are all “woke”. But you don’t have an effective working definition of the term, unless you borrowed it from Chris Rufo or Jordan Peterson; and even then, you don’t understand: we Creatives are ultimately loyal to our vocations, and seek above all to exercise our gifts. 

Politics isn’t important to us — unless we have no talent and are angry at the fact. Otherwise, our highest principles are embodied in the art we create, and as far as we can see, Tories are useless to help us realise our visions. 

Creatives will never be real Tories, for the most part. But you’d be surprised at how many of us would join you in a tactical alliance, if only you would give us something concrete in return. You potentially have an opening, now that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (dcms) will be publishing a comprehensive review of the Arts Council by March 2024 (not, of course, that you are likely to remain in government long enough to implement it). Do you even have a plan, or are you going to fumble this for another 30 years?

The original Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB), founded in 1946, was never particularly transparent or accountable; but it never controlled the sheer amount of money that Arts Council England (ACE) does. 

In 1994, ACGB was reorganised into three separate bodies: ACE, Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales. ACE gained majority control over 20 per cent of the National Lottery Distribution Fund. This means a quarter of a billion pounds a year, on top of Grant-in-Aid funding — which amounted to £540,236,000 for the 2022/23 fiscal year, and £686,801,000 in 2021/22. ACE receives, and spends, a great deal of money.

We Creatives were charmed and flattered

In 1997, Tony Blair explicitly made clear that the arts were an integral part of his vision for the nation. We Creatives were charmed and flattered; after 18 years of poor Conservative management of arts organisations, and a reprehensible lack of coordination and strategy, the few of us who weren’t already vocally pro-Labour were permanently won over. 

Very few Tories understood what Blair meant, or had any idea of how to respond. The rest of you didn’t see through the ruse. You should have instantly realised that much of that new “arts” funding was going directly into the pockets of administrators, managers, “Arts Facilitators” and other commissars. In other words, Labour was creating a new bureaucratic tyranny under your noses. You Tories were too engrossed in petty power struggles to notice how the ACE might be used against you.

 The “management and administration” of ACE has consistently expanded for a quarter-century. Right now there are over 600 full-time employees: 639 in 2020/21, but numbers have gone down a little since. “Administrative costs” were £36.8 million in 2020/21, and £40.8 million in 2021/22. But how much does it cost to give away free money? How much ACE grant money ends up being spent, not on Creatives, or our projects — but to pay the salaries of further useless commissars at national institutions? 

If you have ever attempted to read an ACE report on any subject, you see that nobody has any clear notion of what priorities are or how the institution is supposed to function. Nobody seems to be accountable to anybody else, and there is no single system for instituting or enforcing policy. Despite the size of the institution, individual commissars appear to operate with near-complete independence, and total impunity if they fail to follow such guidelines as exist. 

ACE revised its process for National Lottery Project Grants yet again this year. There is still no reliable system of appeals, no consistent procedure to provide applicants with feedback, and no established, effective mechanism for guiding applicants through an ever-changing process that has never been made simpler, clearer or more efficient in the history of the organisation. Nobody who applies for funding will ever seriously complain about any of this, because the ACE is not transparent, and everybody who relies on it is afraid of being punished or blacklisted by some faceless employee. 

We can’t help but suspect that the system was cynically designed to work like this: when we’re anxious, afraid and exhausted, we’re more likely to obey instructions, and less likely to object if “guiding principles” are unclear, inconsistent or impossible to follow. We’d like to approach someone on our knees and beg, but have no name or face to turn to — not even an email address. 

Nobody who relies on it for funding will dare step out of line

The results are as we see them. This is how the ACE controls culture. Nobody who relies on it for funding will dare step out of line, and indeed we have no idea where the line even is. Who is an informer, and whom are they informing? The institutional culture of ace, and the dread it inspires in all Creatives, was briefly illuminated in 2006 by Sir Nicholas Hytner (then Artistic Director of the National Theatre). On the Today programme he lamented his inability to find a “good, mischievous right-wing play”. 

There was an instant uproar: actors were shocked; playwrights denied being right-wing; artistic directors made clear that they would never produce a right-wing play; literary managers claimed never to have seen a good right-wing play. For months afterwards, theatre critics, reviewers and culture journalists publicly dissected the question of whether they knew of any good right-wing plays, or such a thing was even possible. 

Fear was so pervasive that many theatre professionals began to go out of their way (even by their standards) to make public displays of not being right-wing. Evidently the system worked. Did conservatives notice any of this?

As we saw during the pandemic, ACE’s behaviour during lockdowns caused widespread outrage even among Creatives who are financially dependent on its support. Few have dared criticise it publicly other than the artist Alexander Adams, whose October 2022 pamphlet “Abolish The Arts Council” was the subject of a story in the Telegraph. But prominent Creatives who are known to have read this, and support Adams’s views in private, have feigned ignorance. The cost of dissent is too high.

An intelligently-organised movement against ACE would generate widespread support from Creatives; but as long as you Tories continue to maintain this pompously philistine ppe-ist’s stance towards culture in general, nobody will seize this opportunity to win support from the people who influence the national conversation far more than anyone else. Are you blind, in denial — or merely seething with envy at people whom you despise, but might turn out to be more politically valuable than you?

After Tony Blair left office, his political programme carried on, and even expanded to include more “Arts Education”, more “Development Programs”, more inexplicable bureaucracy than ever before. Luckily for him, David Cameron turned out to be the most openly philistine prime minister since Ramsay MacDonald. Of recent major world leaders, perhaps only Richard Nixon cared less about culture. 

Cameron’s failure even to pretend to be interested in what ace might be doing had predictable results. The opening and closing ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics perfectly expressed a New Labour vision of British history, culture and national character. The irreverence towards traditional institutions and idealisation of disposable, Americanised popular culture was infectious. You could not object to it without looking foolish, or unattractively bitter and curmudgeonly.

Certain Tories moaned that this was an offensive “New Labour pageant” and were rightly shouted down for doing so. The assessment was correct; the complaint was foolish. You people allowed this to happen. To whinge was to reveal how impotent and ineffectual your traditional Conservatism had become.

At least the Church of England had the good sense not to object when the closing ceremonies featured John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” as an announcement to the world that the Established Church was an irrelevant mummery, without even a ceremonial role in public life anymore. This is what happens when you try to ensure short-term survival with retreat after tactical retreat. 

ACE squandered £5.4 million on 12 pieces of forgotten public art to commemorate the Olympics. One piece of “environmental sculpture” in Merseyside cost £535,000, despite the fact that work never even started on it. The project simply wasn’t feasible. Even so, the artist took home £40,000. 

Say what you will about Tony Blair: at least he had a vision, a strategy for achieving it, and a body of well-paid Creatives who have been acting according to his plans for years, long after most of us fell out of love with New Labour. 

Now, with the looming review of the Arts Council, you Conservatives have an opportunity to begin reshaping British culture at least as radically and comprehensively as Blair did. 

But do you have a plan? Do you have any viable personnel who are willing and able to implement it? Do you have any vision whatsoever? Or should we Creatives carry on as we always have since the Second World War, thinking you are scarcely even worth our scorn? 

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