Andrew Eaton-Lewis: What England’s arts funding cuts could mean for Scotland (an optimistic view)

Lee Hall who wrote the film "Billy Elliott"
Lee Hall who wrote the film "Billy Elliott"
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Newcastle City Council’s decision to slash its entire arts budget has provoked howls of outrage – most prominently from local success story Lee Hall, writer of the hit film Billy Elliot. “It is a philistine attack on the arts,” Hall said last week. “It is culturally, socially and, crucially, economically illiterate.”

Talking to a London newspaper, council leader Nick Forbes seemed unrepentant. It was an awful decision to make, he acknowledged, but in the end, compared to vital services like children’s social work, the arts aren’t “life or death”: “I know the arts lobby is largely educated, articulate and knows how to pull the levers of power, but I want to make sure everybody gets heard.”

Forbes’ choice of words was depressing. Here’s the old, familiar insinuation that the arts are an indulgence for the middle classes, rather than – as Hall had previously argued when pleading with Forbes not to proceed with a drastic programme of library closures – “who we are collectively… our conscience and the air we breathe… as fundamentally important as Health and Education”.

I am, you may have guessed by now, with Hall on this. And I would like to see someone follow up on Hall’s investigations – rejected for publication by a London newspaper but widely circulated online – into Newcastle City Council’s budget plans. Hall suspects that, rather than being inevitable, the arts cuts are an ideological decision. For example, £79m of council money (almost 50 times as much as the city’s entire arts budget) has somehow been found for a programme to regenerate rundown commercial areas of the city to encourage new business.

Is this “life or death”? No, just the ideological view that business is more important than culture – and also separate from it, despite frequently quoted evidence that the arts generate four times as much money as they cost to fund, so are good, vital even, for the economy. This is what Hall meant by “economically illiterate”.

What we may be witnessing here is the death throes of the idea, pushed by New Labour, of the creative economy – that the arts, if funded properly, will pay back that money in spades. That idea now looks to have been sidelined by the Tories, who are trying to argue that philanthropy is the way forward – that, in “difficult times”, the arts world needs to become “better at asking” for private money. The tone of some of the language from Westminster suggests the Tories would prefer it if the government didn’t have to fund the arts at all – despite a spirited defence by new Culture Secretary Maria Miller published in the Evening Standard yesterday.

One place where the creative economy ideal is alive and well, however, is north of the Border. Here, the problem is not that the government appears to be abandoning culture, but that it has been supporting it for the wrong reasons. As Hugh Andrew wrote this week in a strongly worded piece on the blog Think Scotland: “The arts are important. Not actually because they represent ‘investment’, not because they ‘encourage tourism’ or ‘employ people’ – all by products – but because they are central to who we are and what we are as people, as communities, as a country. If we miss that central purpose we have missed the whole ‘point’.”

I agree with this, but as the catastrophic events in Newcastle demonstrate, Scottish artists are at least in a stronger lobbying position than our counterparts down south. In England last week, an exasperated Danny Boyle – the director behind this year’s spectacular and hugely popular Olympics opening ceremony – was reduced to publicly accusing Maria Miller of an “outrageous” snub, after discovering she hadn’t yet met any of the heads of England’s 23 biggest regional theatres. Her response: not to apologise, but to accuse her other critics of disingenuousness and dishonesty. In Scotland, by contrast, both Creative Scotland and culture secretary Fiona Hyslop have been listening to the criticisms made of CS this year, and responding with what seems like ever increasing humility.

Here’s an optimistic view of the situation. The worse things get in England – the more the Tories give the impression that they don’t care about the arts very much, and the more artists they alienate by doing so – the more Scottish artists can encourage their government to take pride in (and gain political capital from) doing things differently.

Alex Salmond is already doing this. The Year of Creative Scotland, for all its faults, is at least a clear signal that the SNP regards the arts as a crucial part of this country’s national identity, and therefore worth paying for. That gives artists lobbying power whether they support independence or not.

It is, of course, also a delicate situation. Numerous times over the past year, Creative Scotland has attempted to deflect criticism by pointing out that funding cuts are worse in England. The argument sneakily misses the point – the complaints with CS are largely with its management culture, not funding cuts – but “it could be worse” is an easy case to make.

There’s a risk that, in relentlessly criticising arts funding policy in Scotland, artists try the patience of politicians who regard themselves as sympathetic. That’s not to say artists should in any way be slow to criticise, just that careful diplomacy may be required in the months to come.

• This column was amended by the author on Tuesday 11 December 2012.