Martin Flanagan: Osborne spares arts sector

FROM the time of Maggie Thatcher, the Tories have never been instinctively associated with the arts and creative industries.

Chancellor George Osbornes Autumn Statement was relatively kind to the arts sector. Picture: Getty Images

They never seemed front and centre of Maggie’s thinking, which tended to be more at home with union emasculation, wholesale privat­isation, confrontations with Brussels and a war in the south Atlantic.

The vaguely pooterish John Major liked his cricket and had a more emollient personality, but, perhaps also due to the early Nineties recession, his tenure was never associated with a golden age for the creative industries, either.

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Then came 2010, and the arts was never likely to prosper in terms of public funding against the backcloth of widespread austerity under a Tory-led coalition government to address a debt-submerged Britain.

So it has surprised many that Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement last week saw the sector get off so lightly.

Funding for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) fell by just 5 per cent and its administrative budget was cut by 20 per cent.

It could have been far worse, as the Chancellor had previously set the mood music at Whitehall departments being asked to model spending reductions of between 25 and 40 per cent.

The day-to-day budget for the altogether more utilitarian Department for Transport, for example, saw a 37 per cent cut. It is little wonder that many leading figures in the creative industries are privately cockahoop over the latest settlement. The DCMS was said to have been contemplating quite severe staff layoffs and the binning of entire cultural initiatives, while many museums and arts charities feared the worst.

It was not to be. There may be other factors at play rather than just Osborne – ironically for a gimlet-eyed balancer of state spending – being personally interested in the arts, as he is known to be.

For one, the relevant Whitehall department does not have a major budget in the first place, so the pickings for the Treasury are always likely to be on the thin side in a time of belt-tightening.

Secondly, the Chancellor has been assiduous in trying to reposition the Tories as a more overtly caring party: witness the national living wage coup de theatre in the summer Budget, the apprenticeship levy on big business, and the astonishing hocus-pocus of the (enforced) volte-face on in-work benefits.

It again wrongfoots the opposition if the Conservatives, protrayed as financial bottom-line fanatics with a muted philistine streak, show a more nuanced DNA, not uncomfortable with culture for its own sake rather than just its contribution to GDP.

One way or another, the creative world got off more lightly than even the more floridly optimistic of its members might have hoped this time round.

Perhaps not a blockbuster movie, but the Autumn Statement was almost a case of From Osborne With Luvvie.