Andrew Eaton: 'Even the hawkish Churchill believed it was the government's duty to protect culture'

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AS ARTS Council England reluctantly carried out the government's enforced Budget cuts on Wednesday, an old quotation was circulating among artists I know on Facebook.

"During the Second World War, Winston Churchill's finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill's response: 'Then what are we fighting for?'"

It's a great quote, although whether Churchill actually said it is disputed. At the very least, he believed culture kept up morale in wartime; he was keen to keep theatres open, and strongly opposed the idea of sending art from the National Gallery abroad, preferring to store it safely underground.

The point is, even the hawkish Churchill believed it was the government's duty to protect culture because culture is vital to the well-being of a nation, especially in a crisis.

An argument frequently repeated this week, in support of the cuts, is that in a recession we can't afford not to cut the arts, when cuts are also being made to welfare, health etc. Be wary of it. It's designed to make you think arts cuts are practical and inevitable when, in fact, they are almost always ideological.

Take a current Scottish example: the plan by Kirkcaldy's Adam Smith College to stop funding theatre education in favour of engineering and business, a move protested against by, among others, former student Dougray Scott.

The argument – an ideological one, masquerading as a practical one – is that business courses generate money. It's a false distinction. Statistics consistently show that the arts generate employment and tourism, and make more money for our economy than they cost to fund. Since that money generally goes to people other than artists (restaurants, hotels etc), funding is essential or the source of the money is cut off.

Suggesting governments face a choice between funding hospitals and the arts is also a false distinction, made for ideological reasons. As those who make it know well, it's difficult to oppose – what artist dares claim their work is more important than a hospital bed? – but it's based on a lie.

The sums involved are so different, and involve so many variables, that the distinction is meaningless.

At the heart of this ideology is a philistine belief that culture is an indulgence. It demonstrably isn't. Art, music, cinema, literature, film etc are vital to human health and happiness.

Even Churchill, in the midst of war, could see that.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 3 April, 2011