A government of philistines

Cutting the arts is the last thing the coalition should be doing.

Shortly before the general election, I was talking to the head of one of London's great cultural institutions about Jeremy Hunt. "I hope they keep him at the DCMS," he said. "But he's probably too good for that." It was a compliment to the Tory Culture Secretary, if a rather mournful observation about how low the arts are in the pecking order of government.

Hunt is still looking after the same portfolio that he was in opposition, but perhaps my conversational companion would have wished otherwise if he had known how keen the bushy-tailed cabinet minister, whose ascent has been so meteoric that less than two years ago the NS picture desk was hard pressed to find a photo of him to go with an interview, would be to impose austerity on his department. Up to 50 per cent of his own staff are to go, while arts organisations have to prepare for 30 per cent cuts in their budgets over the next four years.

The shortfall, it is hoped, will be made up by philanthropy. This is either a very bad joke indeed on the part of Hunt, or it suggests that he has not the slightest idea about the history of arts support in Britain (and Europe, to an extent) compared with that in America. Across the pond, it is true, wealthy individuals commonly donate huge sums to museums, opera houses, theatres and galleries. This practice is not entirely altruistic, mind: donors expect and get socially prestigious places on boards, have new halls and wings named after them and, crucially, receive highly lucrative tax breaks for doing so.

On that last point, so far, we have heard nothing from Hunt. Which means that he may as well have wished upon a star for all the likelihood of success his idea will enjoy. The likes of Sir John Ritblatt, Anthony d'Offay and Lord Stevenson, who have donated many millions between them, have already warned that further philanthropy cannot fill the gap, and that in the current economic climate, even those with big wallets are mindful that their contents have shrunk. The point is so obvious -- only a dunderhead could think otherwise.

That Hunt should be proposing this course now is doubly crazy, given that even before the economic crisis, money was tight. Five years ago, one of the greatest conductors of the late 20th century, Zubin Mehta, told me that, in his opinion: "England is a disaster as far as financial backing is concerned." He thought the US -- which is supposed to be the model that will save British arts funding -- was going the same way and Italy, that land of stereotypical southern song, too. "The government is cutting money all the time," he said. "We were told earlier this month to cut €4m from this season's budget at the Florence Opera. It's blasphemous. We are living in very dangerous times."

Blasphemous may seem like a strong word, far too strong for those who view the classical music of which Mehta has been such a worthy proponent as the preserve of a middle-class elite. But Mehta knows what art is, what its reach is: there can be few better examples of its power to inspire all, from world leaders to rank-and-file soldiers, than when he jumped on a plane to perform with the Israeli Philharmonic on the battlefield during the Six Day War.

The idea that this is an appropriate area to prune back barely makes much financial sense. As the actor and director Samuel West pointed out in the Evening Standard on Thursday: "The arts cost only 0.07 per cent of total public spending -- 7p in every £100. The Arts Council theatre budget for 2008 was £54 million; in return, the theatre paid back £76 million in VAT in London alone. That's a 40 per cent dividend."

It could also be enormously damaging to the UK's long-term standing in the arts internationally. Back to West: "Of the 187 Academy Award nominations given to Brits in the past 30 years, 145 went to people who started in the subsidised theatre. Today's fringe produces tomorrow's Oscar winners."

He makes a very important point. As I write this, I am thrilling to the sound of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony being performed via BBC4. The state-sponsored BBC Proms are featuring the work of another state-sponsored artist who, even when he had fallen out of favour ideologically (not a happy situation in the Soviet Union), still found his appearances advertised in the government supervised press, even if it was, as on one chilling occasion in the 1930s, thus: "Today there will be a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich."

So it has always been. In Europe, it has historically been the role of the state to support the arts. Where, without the Vatican and the Medicis, would Michelangelo and Leonardo have been? Handel relied on the Elector of Hanover and ended up as one of our few great English composers only because his patron became George I. Haydn needed the Esterhazys (his Farewell Symphony, in which players dropped out of the score as a none-too-subtle hint to his employers that they could do with slightly longer holidays, can be seen as an early form of mitteleuropean trade unionism), just as we know of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer because he was supported by John of Gaunt and Richard II.

Only a philistine would deny that the arts are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society, and that when empires fall and their riches are dispersed, it is by their literature, paintings, monuments and music that we remember them. Hunt should be protecting his department and fighting its corner. He above all, should know its worth. But does he, I wonder?

A while ago, I talked to Alan Ryan, this country's foremost authority on John Stuart Mill, about the kind of liberal arts education he received and which he continued to be a part of, most recently as Warden of New College, Oxford. The bean counters, I said to him, the same kind of people who now want to savage the government's arts budget, find it impossible to attach value to these areas in their cost-benefit analyses. I asked him where it fits in. Ryan's reply was about education, but I would apply it to all those institutions and artists whose support is soon to be cut.

"Roughly speaking," he said, "it fits in on the bit that says: 'This is what makes life worth having.' And if they say, 'How much worth having?' one says: 'Worth having at all.'"

Remember those words, Jeremy Hunt.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser