Edition number 79; dateline 21 May 2015

Questions of culture: framing a national debate

Well that was interesting. Although it came as no great surprise to find culture not among the central planks of the election campaign, I had hoped for the occasional mention. As it turned out, culture, in our understanding of the term, was entirely absent from the political landscape. If the word ‘culture’ was used at all, it was employed with implicit inverted commas, voiced by people operating down the end of the political spectrum occupied by English nationalists and UKIP councillors yet to be ejected by their party. I had held on to higher hopes for the issue of the public sector and local government but it was a good month into the campaign before anyone referred even to this topic; and then in was Nick Clegg, whose role as shining saviour of public services stood somewhat tarnished by the fact that he had spent the previous five years compliant in their decimation.

This election was framed wholly in economic terms. The closest we came to an attempt to  counter the premise of austerity the argument was muffled acceptance, as though austerity and its efficacy as an economic tool for the greater good had been an unquestionable success and George Osborne, then discredited, dismissed and ridiculed only by intellectual lightweights and know-nothings such as Nobel prize-winner in economic sciences Paul Klugman, had been empirically and unimpeachably vindicated. So stunning was the success of the chancellor’s economic vision that, even with five years to read Mr Klugman’s articles and practise, no politician was able to muster a counter-argument to slashing state spending in pursuit of an economic policy that had not and would not work.

Only after the election has culture emerged as a political issue and, in light of the silence on the subject in previous months, its appearance was remarkably swift. Mr Osborne restated his commitment to the creation of a ‘northern powerhouse’ of industry and achievement, symbolised pre-election by funding for a new cultural sector in the centre of Manchester. Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council, sprung into the pages of the Observer to explain why any reinvention of a city must include its “cultural infrastructure”. Equally swiftly, the Telegraph, in the shape of its opera correspondent, tied itself in knots of caveats and mitigations to challenge this rather dangerous prospect of public sector investment in things cultural. Under the heading ‘Does anyone in Manchester actually want further investment in the arts?’, the London-born, Cambridge-educated Rupert Christiansen makes it clear: “Let’s be realistic about this. Manchester is a down-to-earth industrial city, dominated culturally by football.” Of course it is.

For those of us with a belief in and passion for the transformational and life-affirming powers of sport, leisure and culture, individuals such as Richard Leese offer a fast-fading ray of hope, along with all the local authorities that manage to retain their leisure functions. The arguments for the importance of sport, leisure and culture are as powerful and as valid as ever but how many councils will be able to resist the cultural impact of the cuts yet to come?

In a pleasing piece of juxtaposition, just above Leese’s comment piece was a letter from Councillor David Sparks, chairman of the Local Government Association, explaining that the 375 councils in the LGA’s membership could not maintain any semblance of effective public services with any more cuts to their budgets. It might be tempting to say that a national voice for culture is needed now more than ever but I’ve typed that phrase too often over too many years for it to have any resonance. When even the government’s own national department for culture cannot stir itself to raise a murmur in defence of own territory over the course of an entire parliament, that game would seem to be up. The DCMS may well limp on for a while but surely better to put it out of its misery now. Culture is a local issue these days and, outside the national institutions that once featured on Sajid Javed’s tour of induction (there should be a plaque), its survival lies in local people doing what they do in their clubs and communities, getting together to find a place and a voice strong enough to win some support from any local organisations and authorities that may still be able to help.

But this is not how it should be. Effective opposition to the economic determinism represented by the flawed imperative of austerity should not be framed in solely economic terms; there is more to the refutation of the efficacy of austerity than claiming we can cut just as deeply as you. The political agenda needs to be reframed in terms of culture. What sort of country do you want to live in? What sort of opportunities do you want for your family? What sort of life do you want for yourself? Whatever one’s political perspective, culture is central to the answers to these all questions and offers the prospect of a different political debate, one in which economics and finance serve rather than dictate the pursuit of policy.

Perhaps we need to accept that the reinvention of the national political debate has to start locally, on the pitches and in the parks, at the easels and music stands of local people doing their thing. What sort of country do you want to live in? What sort of opportunities do you want for your family? What sort of life do you want for yourself? Unless the DCMS sees fit to have these questions inscribed over the portal of whichever government building it happens to find itself billeted at the moment, perhaps it should be the start of the cost-cutting process.

Jonathan Ives

The articles referred to in the editorial above are listed below. Such material features regularly in the ‘What we’ve been reading’ column, which is exclusively available to the Leisure Review’s premium subscribers. If you would like to join them – and it would be a great help to the Leisure Review if you would – please drop in to the subscriptions page and keep clicking until you receive your TLR badge. Did we mention the badge?

Paul Krugman: The Austerity Delusion
Internationally renowned economist and Nobel-prize winner Paul Krugman explains why the UK coalition government’s case for cuts was a lie and wonders why Britain, alone across the developed world, still believes it.

Budgets and finance are important for renewal. But don’t forget culture
Observer 17 May. Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council, speaks out regarding importance of culture and argues that it is essential to ensure a city is somewhere people want to live.

Does anyone in Manchester actually want further investment in the arts?
Investment in the arts has rocketed in Manchester recently. But are we wasting our money, asks Rupert Christiansen





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