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Conserving Culture : Not on the Tory Agenda

Emma Weitzman on the future of the arts in the face of Conservative Cuts and Johnson's unsporting attitude

The election of a new conservative government begs the question of how British culture and the Arts will be affected. Close to a decade of Tory rule caused a sharp decline in the funding and support of art and culture, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.

In the past years there have been cuts amounting to nearly £400 millions of local authority spending on culture and the arts since 2010, according to the County Councils Network. Almost 130 public libraries closed in the year 2017-2018 alone, and so did 64 museums between 2010 and 2017. Importantly, the government promoted a shift to an “American philanthropic-style” system: encouraging private endowment in return for advantages to cultural organisations, and pushed for privatisation of key services, which led to strikes at the National Gallery in 2015. Although councils received a large windfall in the budget preceding the election, the Conservative Manifesto only referred to ‘essential local services’ and did not specify their cultural responsibilities.

Perhaps a sign of worse to come is the erupting row over the funding of the BBC. The world’s oldest national broadcasting organisation relies on license fee payments which the government is seeking to undermine. Their most extreme proposal, decriminalising non-payment of the fee, would result in £200 million less spent on programmes. But it is unlikely this will occur, with the key battle being the negotiations over the cost of the fee beginning in 2022. Even a small change in the license fee could have drastic implications.  The BBC already had to scrap free licences for all over-75s as non-payment would have put multiple TV channels and Radio 5live at risk.

It is fairly clear the recent attacks on the BBC have had a political edge. No 10 has accused the organization of bias, making a case of Andrew Neil’s attack on Johnson for refusing to be interviewed. Worryingly, the absolute victory of Conservatives compounds the problem as they claim to have popular legitimacy to further undermine British cultural institutions.

Some point to Johnson’s legacy as Mayor of London to suggest otherwise. He presided over the 2012 Olympics, perhaps the most significant cultural event of the decade in the UK. Beyond getting stuck on zip-wires and rugby fouls against young children, Johnson has good form when it comes to sport as a keen tennis player. He seeks to convert this to policy, promising £550 million for a grassroots campaign to bring the 2030 World Cup to Britain. The image of sport as a force for national unity is hardly novel, but it is revealing. Unlike the arts, sport entails winners and losers as does politics. Hence, the vision of Johnson as the unbeatable popular politician (and less convincingly the ‘underdog’) being translated into a national sporting narrative. Much as the success of the 2012 Olympics fed into the myth of Johnson’s mayoralty (it was Ken Livingstone who launched the bid), footballing success could boost the image of Conservative governments to come. It is worth stressing that this path is well-trodden with little signs of success. In 2010, Cameron travelled to Zurich to launch a pitiful bid for the 2018 World Cup. Out-bribed by everyone else, the UK. was the first country knocked out. The move costed £21 million, minute compared to the billions the Qataris spent just to buy France’s vote. Despite the changes to Fifa’s corrupt set-up, it’s likely another bid would suffer the same fate. Perhaps the lesson for Johnson is that a zero-sum game is fun as long as you’re winning but torturous humiliation when this isn’t the case.

Perhaps a Conservative government’s stance on culture and the arts can be better gleaned through examining the writings of one of its most central figures, Dominic Cummings. He has attacked the tendency to elect leaders from ‘a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with Arts degrees’, and appeals to a vision of a technocratic state unleashed by recreating the environment of tech companies. Hence, in a government which seeks hyper-productivity, what is the role to play of art and culture? There remains an irony to Cummings’ assessment: he is a History graduate, Johnson is a Classics graduate, and there are only a handful of science graduates in the Cabinet. It is also worth noting that the education reforms he attempted to shoehorn in while an advisor to Michael Gove were more traditional than innovatory. Focusing on drumming in classic texts and increasing assessments. Most of the reforms were eventually dropped or diluted due to public outcry, they were condemned by Simon Schama, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Rosen and academics from Oxford, among others.

Although there has been a constant subordination of cultural institutions under Conservative rule, some comfort can be found in politicians’ foibles and contradictions. The election of a figure so antithetical to cultural progress has already ignited a backlash. The number of volunteers in libraries and galleries has gone up and groups supporting artists from minority backgrounds have multiplied. Perhaps some hope can be found in the words of Brecht, a German who sought refuge from fascist ideology, who said: ‘In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes there will also be singing. About the dark times’.

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