State of the arts

Arts Council England's annual conference sold the creative industries short.

State of the arts conference, 14 February, The Lowry, Manchester

Organised by Arts Council England (ACE) in partnership with the BBC, this disappointingly anodyne conference was an exercise in command, control and public relations. Billed as the annual opportunity for the arts sector to debate the principal challenges and contexts facing the arts, it was an over-engineered day of empty rhetoric that managed to valorise artists while simultaneously patronising them. It avoided all formal mention of the quite difficult reality in which most arts organisations are operating, and made no attempt to engage the sector in honest dialogue that might lead to decisive action.

The triumvirate of Alan Davey, Liz Forgan and Ed Vaizey opening the conference (respectively ACE Chief Executive, ACE Chair and Culture Minister) didn't so much as paper over the cracks as appear in complete denial that there are any. In contrast to the barbed exchanges at the 2011 conference, Arts Council England and the DCMS don't just appear to have reached détente, but an entente cordiale, with Liz Forgan calling Ed Vaizey "our national Valentine". Really? Not mine. One can only assume that there are delicate negotiations taking place behind closed doors, probably involving the 50% administration cuts that ACE is being required to make.

Challenged by chair-for-the-day Kirsty Wark over the falling number of applicants to university arts courses, Alan Davey pledged to "watch" the situation. It was a response typical of the wishy-washy mush that was spoken by our most senior arts policy makers.

It was left to curator Sally Lai, who brought up the controversial issue of visas for international artists, and playwright David Edgar to be the heroic dissenting voices from the stage in the morning keynote panel discussion. But it was Edgar's excellent essay "Looking back, moving forwards" that properly contextualised the arts, and key policy debates within the arts - paternalism v participation, instrumentalism v populism, excellence and access - that was the highlight of the day. How much more effective it would have been to hear this presentation in the morning, contributing to the tone and structure of the day. Woefully, it was timetabled for 5.15 pm, the last item on the agenda.

The delegates I spoke to felt that the value of the day lay in the networking, rather than the quality of debate. Many thought there was genuine value and quality in some of the breakout sessions, but "I haven't heard anything I didn't already know" was a common refrain. For the most part delegates appeared accepting of this. "What else can you expect from the Arts Council?" said one person to me. Well actually, a lot more. I think that ACE is a far better organisation than this, and the people within it more intelligent and expert than they were allowed to show. Additionally, ACE expects excellence from its funded organisations, and judges them on this, with consequences; it is only fair that the sector should be able to expect quality and excellence from ACE.

But more importantly, I take great exception to the sector being pushed to take such a cynical position. This event happens once a year. The majority of delegates have been working flat-out for many months, and took a day plus travel time out of their very busy schedules, and paid to attend. Aren't they entitled to expect more from our country's great cultural project? Some honesty and integrity, for example, which are surely affordable even in a time of austerity? Anything less not only patronises but also insults the audience. After all, integrity is the bedrock value for most of us working in the publicly funded arts sector. It's what drives us, and it is what drives the making of great art, yes, for everyone - as the ACE ten-year plan is so keen for us to do.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood