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Megan Vaughan: Why does George Osborne keep measuring culture in terms of profit?

George Osborne meets the Chinese cast of the stage show War Horse at the National Theatre in Beijing. Photo: PA/Press Association Images George Osborne meets the Chinese cast of the stage show War Horse at the National Theatre in Beijing. Photo: PA/Press Association Images
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Earlier, The Stage published an opinion piece by George Osborne, in which he presented a very particular vision of the current UK arts sector: booming, successful, a glorious cash-fuelled love-in. Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare frolicking with Chewbacca in a bathtub full of champagne, rose petals cascading as the LSO segues from Benjamin Britten to Adele. All of this spectacular paradise thanks in no small part to the wondrous Tory tax breaks that have been generously bestowed upon the most commercially-viable parts of our beloved ‘creative industries’.

We all know it’s crap though, right? I mean, please tell me that we’re all up to speed on that. While the examples given are all very real and the few facts presented no doubt check out, the picture he paints in this article not only dangerously massages the figures, it makes value judgements that, on a very human level, are extremely damaging.

Osborne’s language is driven by a greedy ideology of economics

Before we go on, I should state that I think it’s vital that The Stage gives a platform to our politicians – from all parties – who want to discuss and debate the arts policies that affect all our lives, whether we’re working in this sector, enjoying it as audiences and participants, or simply reaping the rewards of cultural engagement through the prosperous and cohesive communities it facilitates. It is important that Osborne’s views are heard on this site, and I hope Maria Eagle, Labour’s new shadow secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, adds her two pennies’ worth as well. What I want to object to is Osborne’s language, driven by a greedy ideology of economics and perpetuating a false hierarchy within our sector.

Look at that language: “commerce”, “hits”, “influence”, “investment”, “bestselling”, “busiest”, “value”, “success”. I think it’s obvious what George means by ‘success’, and let’s be clear, most of what we do in this industry does not conform. It’s not your R&D experiment unless it is converted to VAT on tickets. It’s not your workshop for excluded pupils, unless local businesses report a reduction in vandalism. It’s not your apprenticeship scheme, until those kids start coughing up through PAYE. It’s not the rehabilitation of addicts and offenders, until they stop ‘leeching’ off the NHS and prisons budget. Sorry, guys, none of that stuff matters. Just give us the bottom line, yeah?

The message here is one of neoliberalism above all else; economic growth as the single signifier of success in a sector that has a regular and profound impact on our collective and individual wellbeing. It’s disingenuous of me to say that you can’t put a price on that, because you can. They do, regularly. George Osborne does it in his piece. £77 billion is what we’re worth to him. (Only some of us, mind. I think he says everything “from Billy Elliot to Spectre”. Y’know, the stuff that turns a profit.)

There are other rebuttals of this letter to be written of course, other arguments from other perspectives. Perhaps one by someone at a council-funded organisation which finds little comfort in cash increases to the arts council when its funding streams have been so viciously slashed. Perhaps by one of the individual artists currently self-producing their projects to keep costs down and who are therefore excluded from claiming theatre tax relief. Perhaps by a single parent, whose local Sure Start centre used to give young children free opportunities to get messy and creative until it was closed down. You don’t have to be as down on capitalism as I am to find Osborne’s orgy of self-congratulation grossly misrepresentative.

George, I’m really happy that you got to meet Chewbacca and everything, but your article was arrogant, uncaring and deceitful. Don’t bullshit us.

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