Responding to the interview with culture secretary Andy Burnham in last week’s edition, shadow minister for culture Ed Vaizey argues that the arts would be better off under the Conservatives and explains why he thinks the DCMS is wasting money and the arm’s-length principle has been undermined.
What would a future Tory government be like for the arts? If you believe culture secretary Andy Burnham, interviewed in The Stage last week, all would be doom and gloom. So let me take this opportunity to set out what I want to achieve for the arts if we are lucky enough to win the election.
At the top of everybody’s priorities will be funding. Thanks to The Stage, we now know that Labour plan to cut the arts, as part of their overall plan to cut public spending by £37 billion.
As Burnham put it, “further efficiencies would have to be secured in the third year of the spending review. …Some people may not like it, but the arts has to live in the real world too. Nobody is immune from what is happening”.
In contrast, under the Conservatives, the arts will receive a bigger slice of the cake. Since 1997, Labour has diverted some £3.8 billion from Lottery good causes, which has cost the arts alone some £323 million. Our National Lottery Independence Bill will see the amount of money going to the arts increase from just 16.6% to 20% of the cake. That means an additional £53 million a year for the arts, on top of what they receive already from the Lottery and from revenue funding.
We, too, can play the game of efficiency savings – except ours will be genuine. Just a cursory glance at what the DCMS has been up to is pretty shocking. It spent £50,000 on the McMaster report, which we could have written in an afternoon. It spent £300,000 on its convergence think tank – despite the fact that Ofcom was already doing this work. Last month, it spent a shocking £50,000 entertaining design gurus at dinner in Liverpool, as part of its ill-fated C&binet initiative, which will cost several million by the time it is finished. That’s £400,000 and counting already, quite a lot of money for a struggling arts organisation, but not, it seems, to Andy Burnham.
So, yes, there are efficiency savings to be made. But my watchword is that they will hit the department and the quangos, not front-line arts organisations.
And what about the quangos? Burnham has set his face against funding the big five – the RSC, National Theatre, Royal Opera House, South Bank Centre and English National Opera – directly from the department, rather than through the arts council, describing such a policy as “Eastern European”.
In a sense he is right, as it is a policy proposal from Sir John Tusa, who chaired our arts task force, whose ancestry is indeed Eastern European. The thinking behind it is pretty straightforward. The national museums are funded directly by the department, so why not the big five? No government would ever allow the arts council to close them (at least not without having a say) and indeed the government intervened directly to save the Royal Opera House at the turn of the century. The big five take up 25% of the arts council’s budget and inadvertently distort its priorities.
We have not yet decided whether to adopt this policy or not – we know there are arguments against it as well. But what is certain is that a proper debate on the role of the arts council is needed.
Ministers take refuge behind the arm’s-length principle when convenient, as they did during the debacle of the arts council cuts at the beginning of last year. But Labour has destroyed the principle in all but name. It commissioned and then imposed the McMaster report on the arts council. It dreamt up the free theatre ticket initiative, which will cost theatres millions of pounds, and then imposed it on the arts council.
I want to see an arts council that is a genuinely independent organisation, funding grass-roots arts bodies across the country and coming up with its own initiatives rather than being forced to react to the whims of ministers.
I also want to see many of our arts organisations have a much more secure long-term funding future, with more five-year, seven-year and occasionally ten-year funding agreements that will allow for proper sustainable development.
Finally, I think that the arts need security. If copying Labour’s policy is meant to be an insult, let me turn the accusation around. Under the Conservatives, there will be no rip it up and start again approach. We will maintain free museums. We will continue to support the arts generously from core funding and from the Lottery.
There will be changes, I hope for the better. But helping to secure the remarkable success of the arts, which began long before Tony Blair came to power, and is in reality the work of some amazing men and women working all over the country, is my only aim.