The Billy Elliot writer was talking about Newcastle City Council cutting its entire arts budget – which has led to howls of outrage and, last week, an intervention from shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman. But his words apply just as well to Moray Council, which has just voted to cut its own entire arts budget, prompting dismay in the arts world and a plea from the Scottish Government to reconsider.
I hope it does. The decision was not just shortsighted and philistine, but also dishonest. As with Newcastle, the council argues that it’s just being practical, trying to “live within our means” in a recession. The choice, we’re told, is between culture and “key services” like care for the elderly. Moray Council also claims it is just doing what residents told it to, pointing to a survey which asked people to choose where they were “most willing to see reductions” – arts, or day care/flood prevention etc? Arts topped the list.
How to respond to this? Firstly “reductions” is not the same as “removal”, so it is dishonest to claim this survey gave the council a mandate to cut arts funding entirely (in fact, the survey also records people requesting that money is moved “from other areas into arts”). Secondly, asking someone whether they want money spent on arts or day care for the elderly is a leading question. Emotionally blackmailed into choosing, I’d say the elderly too.
But what if the question was put another way? Moray Council needs to save £30 million. How much will it help if, in one blunt stroke, the council stops spending £94,000 a year (ie, a mere 0.3 per cent of that figure, and much less than its chief executive’s salary) on projects that bring artists to Moray to enrich the lives of schoolchildren and help steer young offenders away from crime, or bring leading companies like the National Theatre of Scotland and the RSC to the area, or do any number of other things identified by Highlands and Islands Arts last week as achievements made possible by the council’s already tiny arts budget?
This, I admit, is a leading question, but no more than the ones the council did ask. The point is, Moray Council has made an ideological decision to abandon the arts. It has decided it doesn’t care that culture enriches lives, or that – in purely financial terms – all evidence shows that investing a small amount of money in it makes much more back in the long term. And, shamefully, it is ducking responsibility for this decision by blaming other people.