Andrew Haydon: Groupthink? Why Ed Vaizey should be more careful with his words

Ed Vaizey giving his speech at the Royal Society of Arts
Video screenshot of Ed Vaizey giving his speech at the Royal Society of Arts
Andrew Haydon
Andrew Haydon is a freelance theatre critic based in Manchester. He has written for the Guardian, Nachtkritik.de, Frakcija, Kultrpunkt.hr, Szinhaz.hu and Exeunt, among others. He blogs at Postcards from the Gods.
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To echo The Stage's print editor, Alistair Smith, Ed Vaizey’s 27-minute lecture to the Royal Society of Arts is well worth watching in full. Yet unlike Smith, I would venture that one of the reasons you should do so is to discern for yourself the gulf between what Vaizey actually says and how it has been reported.

Yes, he says: “Let’s not beat about the bush: the arts are relentlessly left wing...” but this assertion also serves as the set-up for the (omitted) punchline: "But anyone right wing probably works in Christies." The response wryly acknowledges that the arts are not the geometric impossibility that the first clause of the joke implies.

Sadly, Vaizey never really defines what he means by "left wing". He does talk rather a lot about being asked for money (“Cultural policy is debated in mono, not stereo – there is only one debate: how much money are we going to get?”), but this is surely a unique, minister’s-eye-view.

And it is clearly not the only debate about the arts in the UK; it is disingenuous to suggest it is. He does talk about his own ideological fondness for philanthropic giving (“We are lucky in this country with our mixed ecology of funding”), but it’s worth remembering that even massive state funding of the arts is not a de facto left-wing position. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union – Germany’s Conservative Party – raised arts funding by 8% in the face of the financial crisis. Arts funding for Berlin alone is nearly as much as Arts Council England’s entire annual budget. So, let’s agree that, at the very least, there are different approaches to this question on the right, too.

Vaizey also talks about the subjects of plays. Quoting my former colleague at Culture Wars, Munira Mirza, he cites the lack of a pro-fox hunting play. But try as I might, I can't think of an anti-fox hunting play, either.

This, then, is innuendo, not a detailed critique of British theatre based on fact. And, of course, this idea of "a play having a viewpoint" misunderstands how rather a lot of theatre works. Even so, I could write you a very long list of plays that I would assert are essentially right wing in their outlook.

What constitute 'left' and 'right' sympathies is a constantly contested area, subject to claim and counter claim on both sides. There is also a kind of confirmation bias at play, where both sides of the political spectrum perceive left or right bias based largely on whether the material aligns with their own beliefs. And all this assumes that arts workers subscribe to this confusingly binary political alignment.

I could write a very long list of plays that are essentially right wing in their outlook

Consider the counter to Vaizey's opinion, in which we point out that the theatrical style that we might call '1980s alternative theatre' is apparently right-wing theatre critic Quentin Letts’ favourite ever thing: National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch (“a startling, noisy, upsetting, violently thrilling show”); the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre (“a delight: clever, touching, beautifully acted, minimalist yet expansive, a production that makes you see entire new possibilities in theatre”) and Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“a bundle of happy surprises. With folky pop songs and a fusion/dope aesthetic") – which must be disconcerting for any would-be radical lefties among those makers.

At the same time, Ivo van Hove’s favourite novel is The Fountainhead, and one of the oldest plays we have is Euripides’ Trojan Women; once memorably characterised by Michael Arditti in the Evening Standard thus: “Imagine Howard Brenton writing a play in response to the recent bombing of Baghdad, equating it with the Nazi raids on London, and you will have some idea of [the play’s] background.” Euripides lived in a 'democracy' in which only land-owning, slave-owning men could vote. He was not a left-wing playwright, in any way, shape or form, and Vaizey insults the humanity of his own side to suggest that the left has the monopoly on empathy or compassion.

Taking all that into account, it’s fascinating how much of the remainder Vaizey’s speech could be characterised as left wing. After the part where he accuses the arts of being relentlessly left wing, he goes on to criticise them for being conservative, resistant to change, deplorably white, male and middle-class. Indeed, for a while, he seems to be channelling Bryony Kimmings.

In modern Britain, calling anything “relentlessly left [or right] wing” needs further qualification. As Vaizey’s own speech proves, the days of a simple binary between two easily understood and mutually exclusive checklists of values are gone. The real fault lines and politics of post-Brexit Britain are still in flux and the arts can be fundamental to our understanding of them. Or at least, they will as long as we don’t get bogged down in name-calling.

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