Cultural revelation

After 13 years of investment, the arts are no longer
the privilege of a wealthy few. Labour should

In 1997, the Labour government set out to strengthen funding for the arts - and achieved it. To borrow Gordon Brown's favourite electioneering battering ram - statistics - our "creative economy" that year accounted for less than 4 per cent of the UK gross value added. In 2007, it stood at 7.3 per cent, growing at 6 per cent per annum compared with 3 per cent for the rest of the economy.

The Work Foundation estimates that the UK has the largest creative sector in the EU and, relative to GDP, probably in the world. It is now a big business. The sector employs almost two million people, mostly niche experts, often world-class. It contributes £16.6bn to our exports. British theatre alone makes £2.6bn annually from a subsidy of £126m. Each pound of government funding brings in two from other sources. The arts take 0.08 per cent of our budget, a sum that ought to be guaranteed for the next couple of years. The sector has earned it, and has proved it has long ceased to be the patronised Benjamin of the economy.

Like university science departments, the arts have shown how they can earn their way and point to an economically newborn future for this country. They show that the UK could be a prime provider of imaginative riches and intellectual adventure, which I think are the two great prizes of the 21st century.

The success of the arts has come through a mix of public subsidy, substantial private support and good box-office receipts, but central to Labour's post-1997 programme has been a determination to increase access as much as excellence. So we have the magnificently restructured British Museum, but we also have had a vast increase in visitor figures, thanks to the free admission policy. Some galleries and museums have seen their numbers all but double over the past decade. There has been a 21 per cent increase in visits from the socio-economic groups C2, D and E. For many, this has been a time of revelation. The cash-class-culture barricades have been breached. They are still there, but what we have is a damn sight better than what went before.

There is a similar story in many state schools. More than 1.75 million children have benefited from the Youth Music scheme since its launch in 1999. Look at the number of new choirs in schools; go to the Royal Albert Hall in summer for three days of young musicians from all over the country; listen to the children in Lancashire schools playing brand-new brass instruments. It is not yet enough. It is frustrating that it will never be enough - but what a start!

I fear I am breaking the rules by emphasising success in these election campaign days, when parties strive so hard to out-grim each other, but many people to whom it would previously have been out of bounds now have the opportunity to pursue creative fulfilment. That this has been done with the help of the government proves the value of intelligent intervention.

The chameleon power of the arts has also been demonstrated over the past decade. For instance, a couple of years ago The South Bank Show made a film with the violinist Tamsin ­Little. We went with her to Gallions Primary School in east London, where she ran several workshops. The school was an inspiration. It opened about ten years ago and took in children from multiracial, multilingual and often very difficult backgrounds, including sink estates. Nearly all the children had failed in previous schools and were initially disruptive to the point of throwing furniture around.

However, the staff had been recruited because of their arts expertise. They developed an ethos that soon had an impact on the children's attainment and overall happiness. Funding from J P Morgan was invested in musical instruments for the entire school. Every child studied and played an instrument. Almost immediately, behaviour improved. Philosophy classes were introduced and a curriculum was created where traditional subjects were sorted into research projects and delivered through art, music, dance and drama. It worked.

Through the arts, the children have been given advantages that were once the sole property of the privileged. It is a story that cries out to be copied across the UK. For centuries, the majority has been excluded from those arts that have furnished the minds of a minority. Now, surely, is the time to include those who have been left to wander in a wilderness of cultural neglect. Gallions Primary School has proved the potential of the arts as an educational and mobilising force. It would be a crime against the children of the poor if this ­aspect of policy were not developed further.

Those of us who are better off have been given more over these past few years. A good example is the growth of the book festival. Crowds have filled the tents of Hay and Edinburgh and the halls of Cheltenham, Buxton, Brighton, Keswick, Southwold and countless other places.

Much of this is due to the enthusiasm of the ever-increasing audience of readers, the willingness of authors to perform and, not least, the organisers. But there is, in the mix of funding and the opening up of the arts, a direct connection with the steady drive to access and participation that sells out an equally growing number of music festivals and overflows the great museums and galleries.

There is an army of the informed wanting to be more informed. They are helping to transform this country from one based on the toil and wealth of heavy industry to one enriched by the pleasure and equal promise of wealth that comes from the creative industries.

Melvyn Bragg is a Labour peer in the House of Lords.