As in health and education, the steady erosion of the culture sector damages us all...
Like health and education for all, arts for all was not won easily. It took over a century of demands and class struggle, and the impetus of hopes for a better life following the second world war to establish a national health service and a free education system throughout Britain.
BBC musicians and a variety of choirs prepare for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
What is often overlooked is the third pillar achieved in the late 1940s – the creation of a way to safeguard and fund the arts nationally, for all across the nation. It helped build morale and kept national unity in a bleak economic period. In contrast to today, demands for separatism were almost non-existent and the sense of “Britain” was enhanced by the extensive touring of theatre, music and exhibitions throughout the land.
Capitalism has never liked the way the arts are so non-commercial and contrary to “the market”, and it has sought to continually erode the system of national funding for the arts ever since. The growth of the European Union and its push to weaken nation states by regionalisation has been another factor weakening and fracturing a flourishing cultural movement.
Behind the development of national cultural projects invariably lay some superb talents with strong vision. The National Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but its origins can be traced back to the immediate post war years.
Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier’s rebuilding of London’s Old Vic theatre in 1945-46 with world-beating productions of Shakespeare (the legendary Richard III for example) inspired the revival of British theatre. Joined by Vivien Leigh and others they formed a permanent touring company – eventually reborn as The National Theatre.
Their example inspired other theatres such as the Crucible in Sheffield, the Citizens in Glasgow and the Royal Shakespeare Company, to name but a few. Youth theatre and amateur drama benefited greatly from this revival.
Similarly, the revival of symphony orchestras (and their associated choirs) had its spin-off in the formation of youth orchestras and youth choirs. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was an example for the whole nation to follow.
Every city had an orchestra fed by junior orchestras and bands. For example the Youth Orchestra of Glasgow, founded in 1951, soon grew into three Glasgow Schools’ Orchestras. Alongside this, brass bands, large wind bands, pipe bands and youth choirs were founded, building on traditions of local areas. Competitive music and drama festivals such as the Brent Festival or Edinburgh Competitive Music Festival provided an incentive to keep standards high.
This system of youth music, a world-leading project at its height, has been allowed to run down for over three decades, depleted of care and funding. What should have been an example of excellence – an export to other countries – is now being forgotten and a project from another country imported (the Sistema or “Big Noise”, from Venezuela).
But one British institution, driven by the persistence and professionalism of its practitioners, has kept its integrity. The music examination system of Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music has steadily enhanced its worldwide reputation for high standards. Its examiners are in increasing demand in countries around the world, including China and Japan.
A wartime origin can also be pinpointed for the effort to fund arts properly for the nation. Cultural organisations were struggling to continue activities as war unfolded. So in 1940 the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts was founded.
Initially, improving morale was part of the vision with theatre, concert tours, visual art and film, utilising both professional and amateur companies. Peace brought an added emphasis on excellence and enabled many ambitious music and drama projects. Arts funding was found – despite postwar economic devastation.
The new postwar funding body, the Arts Council of Great Britain, had to be prepared to account for its funding decisions to government and the public. Major festivals encompassing all the art forms were funded, including the Edinburgh International Festival, as a stage for the best of British arts to share with guests from around the world.
There was also the one-off 1951 Festival of Britain to celebrate victory over Nazism, and the peace. Iain Sinclair, the British writer and filmmaker, visited it as an 8-year-old. Writing of its 60th anniversary, he notes that it is “remembered as an uplifting moment for a nation recovering from the trauma of war” and that it was designed to “celebrate Britain’s heritage, her industrial and scientific advances” – and its “get-it-done” attitude, a contrast with “our age of corporate sponsorship”.
Legacies from that period include the cultural hub of the Southbank Centre. It is still being developed to this day, and has just concluded its ambitious year-long music festival “The Rest is Noise”.
For the visual arts significant developments include the Hayward Gallery, Tate Modern and the renovation of galleries and museums in cities throughout Britain, and the resultant touring exhibitions.
Without proper funding major events like the Manchester International Festival and the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony – a celebration of British achievement in industry, health, education and the cultural field – could not have happened.
Decline and fracturing
Eating away at this potential was an ideological attack from capitalism. This was seen in its most overt form in the United States where the McCarthy inquisition against working class ideas drove out some of the best talent of stage and screen. Paul Robeson was exiled to Britain, with the upside that he established a lasting rapport with the Welsh miners and their male voice choirs.
In Europe including Britain a more underhand system was employed to counteract ideas that challenged capitalism. National characteristics or art that might rouse to revolt were downplayed in favour of a faceless and abrasive “modernism”. Writers and artists who followed the British and American government line were favoured.
An account of this period begins to be explored in Frances Stonor Saunders’ book Who Paid the Piper?, described as an investigation of the role of the CIA and other agencies in directing the ideology of culture in Europe in the “cold war” decades following World War 2. Whether by design or expediency, Europe and Britain were flooded with American commercial culture, much of it of a “junk” standard from the mid-1950s onwards. Despite this British voices in pop, jazz and classical music in several styles struggled to the surface.
National funding of “excellence” in art and music found itself in conflict with the pressures from this capitalist “market” ethos. Funding for the arts has been dispersed and has declined. Even in schools and art and music colleges this conflict still unfolds.
On top of this the vision for a “one nation” provision for the arts faltered. In 1967 funding was split up with the formation of Scottish and Welsh Arts Councils. In the 1980s the Thatcher government – as well as devastating industry – attacked the arts, cutting in half the number of organisations being funded and dividing up the arts into 10 regions.
1993 saw a supposed boost for culture – a reliance on gambling through National Lottery funding. But by 1997 the arts endured another major cut by amalgamation with media and sport nationally, coupled with intrusive questioning and paperwork. Accusations of dumbing down followed. By 2003 separation was well established, the national overview of culture lost and Arts Council England formed. This was one of the moves that seemed designed to make any mention of the concept of “Britain” taboo. Until now, that is, when the fight-back against separatism and fracturing – and reuniting our working class – has begun in earnest.
Arts unions fight back
To resist the degrading and cutting of our achievements in culture, workers have brought the unions that represent them into several well organised campaigns.
At the BBC, in its eighth year of cutbacks, several unions are arguing that cultural standards and the range of programmes have been so severely damaged that the corporation has laid itself open to privatisation by its enemies. Thousands of musicians, actors, writers, technical and production staff in the BBC are represented by BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union), Musicians’ Union, Equity, Writers’ Guild, NUJ and the IT & Communications sector of Unite. They are now campaigning jointly under the call “BBC Cuts: There is an Alternative”.
These unions – together with the Professional Footballers Association – form the Federation of Entertainment Unions. The campaign against continual cuts and closures in cultural life “Lost Arts” has brought together the Federation with members of the Prospect and PCS unions to fight this steady erosion.
The actors’ union Equity leads the “My Theatre Matters!” campaign to stop theatre decline and closures. Somerset has been the first to cut its entire arts budget. On top of Arts Council cuts, massive local authority cuts are being targeted at urban areas, where most of the funded theatres are.
Theatres and theatre companies threatened include Northern Stage and Theatre Royal in Newcastle, Sheffield’s Lyceum and Crucible theatres and the New Vic in Stoke-on-Trent. Reinforcing the Equity push are The Stage magazine and Theatre Managers Association.
A special Equity technique has been to get a leading actor to make a speech to the audience at the curtain call as the show or play comes to an end – thus mobilising the public to defend their theatres. Well known names actively backing this campaign include David Tennant, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters and playwright Alan Ayckbourn.
Choral singing in Perth Concert Hall.
The struggle to save libraries in Britain has been featured in Workers before and this campaign continues in its work under “Voices for the Library”. It is estimated that over 10 per cent of libraries (out of 4,500) are under threat of closure, yet councils have a legal obligation to provide them – without charging for book loans. So downgrading of professional standards and de-skilling has been ongoing. Many local campaigns have been organised.
The Musicians’ Union, the National Union of Teachers and the EIS in Scotland have collaborated in continual campaigns to save or upgrade music teaching in schools. Instrumental and voice training is often centred in music “hubs” sometimes outside normal school hours. Some counties have cut their provision for this, so a very uneven picture emerges, and in November Ofsted issued a damning verdict on Music Hubs in England.
Meanwhile, cuts are affecting jobs and pay for music teachers, who face redundancy, pay cuts and reduced work in over 35 music services. This is in the context of overall and ongoing arts funding cuts. For example the Arts Council of Wales’ budget was cut by over 3 per cent in November, while its Scottish equivalent was deemed in a music magazine to have become “mired in uncertainty”.
Also ongoing is the decades-long campaign to “Keep Music Live” promoted by the MU whose sticker to that effect is to be seen in most pubs, clubs and venues. A current MU effort is to survey and support those working in pubs and clubs. This comes after sorting out the problems that the restrictions by local authorities on live music venues had thrown up. The MU fought for events with audiences up to 200 to be free of the severe licensing restrictions.
We have been reminded in recent weeks of the hardships of this sector by the tragic crash of the helicopter into the Clutha pub in Glasgow where the “two-tone” nine-member ska band Esperanza were performing.
They had been inspired by an earlier generation of musicians who had broken through the commercial market jungle to establish a very British style. Their inspiration was the Coventry group The Specials, whose hit song Ghost Town summed up the urban and industrial devastation – and revolt against it – of the early Thatcher years. Recent years have proven that the pioneering creative spirit that led to the demands to fund arts for all nationwide has not died down. Just look out for the music, theatre and film from Britain in a host of styles that have found success on the world stage. ■