A few months ago, the Conservative MP for Rosendale and Darwen, Jake Berry, was ridiculed for saying that in the North of England, football, rather than the ‘Royal Ballet or Royal Opera House or Royal Shakespeare Company’ is the cornerstone of cultural life. Never mind that, Manchester has a vibrant music scene and prominent museums, or that the Beatles were from Liverpool.

Cutting funds for the arts

Berry’s comments are revealing, as they go to show that this government (and much of the Conservative Party) think that working-class people are not interested in high-brow culture. This is significant, as the Conservatives now pride themselves in representing many so-called ‘red wall’ voters in the North and Midlands. But projecting their own philistine tendencies — which seem to take little notice of supporting the arts sector as part of their agenda — onto the electorate, is misleading and cowardly.

This perhaps explains why Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, recently announced a 50 per cent cut to funding for arts subjects in universities. The cuts will affect subjects such as art, music, drama, media studies and archaeology (it is reported that the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield is at risk of being shut down). The set designer, Es Devlin said: ‘… we know we need to train doctors and nurses in order to maintain our physical national health. Equally, we need to train artists, musicians, designers, in order to maintain our cultural national health’.

As has already been suggested, this government does not seem to care very much about ‘cultural health’. But you might at least expect them to care a bit more about the economic health of the nation.

Don’t dis the arts sector, you’ll regret it!

Three hundred art figures wrote a letter to the government describing the proposed spending cuts as a ‘strategic misstep’. And they are not wrong. The arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion to the UK economy each year and creates around 363,700 jobs. Britain’s theatres and museums are also vital for the country’s tourist industry. As the American-British playwright, Bonnie Greer said:

‘something that the Conservatives either do not understand or know, or both, about theatre: tourists contribute to the country’s GDP because of it. Nobody comes to the UK for the food, the beach or the scenery. They come for culture: all of it. But especially for the theatre’.

Put simply, the arts and culture sector is one of the UK’s most important exports. In the last year alone, the British film and television industry has been a huge success. Series such as Unforgotten and The Crown have been widely watched. And not just in the UK. Unforgotten is getting a remake for ABC in the US, which will be retitled Suspects. British actors are famous throughout the world and consistently keep winning awards at the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

But if the industry is to remain as vibrant as it is today, we will need to keep training the artists of the future, and that means funding subjects such as art, music and drama. The famous musician Jarvis Cocker, who was one of the letter’s signatories, attended the London School of Arts.

‘Levelling up’ is vacuous rhetoric without strategic arts funding

The Tories’ ‘levelling up’ agenda will require a lot of money, which means that they would do well not to decimate such a robust industry that contributes so much to the economy.

Moreover, investing in the arts industry could actually be an important part of this agenda. The former Labour MP, John Mann, has campaigned for more arts funding for coalfield communities. He pointed out that, for every £8 the Arts Council spends in London, just £1 is spent in former mining communities. ‘Simply put’, Mann said, ‘while Islington residents are falling over dance studios, orchestras and operas, people in Yorkshire and the north Nottinghamshire constituency I now represent in Parliament must travel miles to get anything like the same quality of provision’. Mann’s campaign was backed by the current Shadow Foreign Secretary and Wigan MP Lisa Nandy. There will be young people across the country with the potential to be talented actors, musicians, dancers and artists, but who lack the opportunity to discover their talent because resources are so scarce in their area.

If the government is serious about levelling up, it would do well to focus on fixing the shocking geographical and class disparities highlighted by John Mann, instead of assuming, as Jake Berry seems to, that people in the North are not interested in culture. This, along with the money generated by the arts sector could mean arts and culture may in fact become a central tenet of the levelling up agenda. But, given the proposals put forward by Gavin Williamson and the attitudes of MPs like Berry, I’m not holding my breath.

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