The philistines at the gates

Stewart Lee, Martin Parr and Hayden Thorpe discuss the coalition's policy for the arts.

While most of the focus has been on the coalition's handling of healthcare reform and the economy, the Cameron government's mismanagement of other areas has gone relatively unnoticed. The arts are a prime example.

The huge cuts to arts funding and trebling of tuition fees set alarms bells ringing. Applications for university arts courses have since plummeted, potentially stifling a generation of artists. Why consider a riskier career in the arts when one can study finance or business and be more certain of securing a salaried job upon graduation?

Cameron's view that The King's Speech is the holy grail of film making is also worrying. The implication that a film's "commercial success" is the best way to judge its value is ignorant and narrow-minded. We are still waiting for the prime minister to make the case for low-budget British films bereft of star names that make an impact culturally and enrich our view of the world around us. But Cameron appears to want blockbuster British films that export a certain view of British society. Is his clumsy rhetoric simply a sign of someone who doesn't understand art? Or is a more concerted assault on the arts (and on arts funding) being launched?

According to comedian Stewart Lee, only time will tell. "It's too early to say," he says. "For your own sanity you have to believe he's just a philistine. The alternative is that Cameron's attacks on the arts are in fact ideologically driven, and that it's an attempt to destroy and close down the spaces where free thinking and questioning happens. Life would certainly be a lot easier for politicians without troublesome thinkers, particularly educated and creative ones, but it's too early to say if this is what's really going on."

Photojournalist and "natural anti-Tory" Martin Parr is not convinced that an anti-arts agenda is being perpetrated:

I certainly don't share that paranoia. Under Thatcher, photography became a celebrated cause and art flourished because we all hated what she was doing so much. It provided inspiration. I think Tory policies galvanising creativity is as likely as this argument that Conservatives are trying to strangle the arts. I was alarmed about what happened to the British Film Council but my view was that it was a flawed organisation. Some of the weaker arts organisations needed to be weeded out. The arts were cut as much as anything else - everything has been cut. Art is alive and well in the UK. Art, theatre, music - all of it is thriving in London and very little of it is publicly funded.

Lee believes the fundamental condition of promoting vibrant and culturally diverse art is social mobility and fair access to good quality education.

It's not just about arts funding, It's also about education for all, so that people are literate enough to be able to appreciate books and films etc. The main thing is that we need social mobility to give new voices access and influence, to help us understand different views of the world to those held by the wealthy and privileged alone, and obviously we have gone into reverse gear in this respect. Culture doesn't just look after itself. I'm worried that as a society we'll just forget how to do the good stuff, and no-one will know anything. I don 't think David Cameron has any feeling or understanding for the value or purpose of arts, so it's an obvious thing to cut. His comment about only making films that make profit shows he doesn't understand anything. By definition, arts are not an exact science and it isn't their job to make money any way - we have business for that. Funding should go to films, for example, that can't make a profit, but which should be funded because they appear to be artistically worthwhile. If he wants films to make a profit just make Top Gear the movie, and ten sequels. I'm sure his friends would let him be in it if he liked.

Hayden Thorpe is a vocalist and guitarist in Wild Beasts, a brilliant young British band who have achieved critical acclaim despite their alternative sound. As a young, successful artist, what's his view on Cameron's handling of the arts? "Cameron's approach does not at all surprise me. He embodies the archetypal conservative principle towards art in that it is an indulgence for the wealthy if only to create more wealth. It saddens me."

He worries about art becoming exclusively for the rich and feels that British art must reflect the diversity ofn British society. But with tuition fees trebling he fears the worst:

Encouragement of daring and provocative thought nurtures those within our society who hold a valuable asset. Art school applications have dropped 27 per cent since the change in university fees. To put it bluntly we have lost a quarter of the next generation of those involved in the creative arts who came from lower income families. This is a tragedy. What I desperately fear we'll come to expect is art created by the rich, about the rich for consumption by the rich. What a monotone and starved output of creative work we would have. How many people will grow up never able to fully grasp and explore their talent? The personal tragedies are as sad as the collective ones. For me what is key is understanding that artistic ambition and financial ambition are two very different things. To be determined and focused on achieving great things in your work may sometimes result in financial gain but never without the work itself being the priority.

Parr agrees with those sentiments. "All filmmakers and artists want their work to be good and if it makes a profit then fine but if it doesn't it's not the end of the world. The great thing about being a photographer is that I can just do what I want to do. I don't need to wait for a grant."

Thorpe believes that, now more than ever, art has a crucial social role to play:

Introspective thinking is a rare thing at the moment, our media is set up to be immediately very reactive and responsive, speaking is no longer slave to thinking. Listening has become secondary to speaking. The art sector is essential in allowing people to tell their stories, to be listened to, to be understood and most importantly in order to be a forum for compassion. The ideals of a meritocratic democracy where individuals pay tax is that society runs on values beyond money making and people are connected not only for financial purposes but for mutual growth and enrichment. I hope those values still mean something when this period of economic crisis and political quick fixing passes.

So, if Cameron had been in power for longer, would certain artists that we love not exist? Thorpe believes art school opportunities are important but has faith in individuals' ability to make it in spite of government:

The vast majority of Britain's past and current artists and musicians went to university or art school. Furthermore, 8 per cent of our country's workforce is currently employed in creative sectors. So something must have been right and beneficial for the individual and residually the state as a whole for this to be the case. Whether certain individuals would not have gone onto greatness under this government is hard to say, I have absolute faith in the human's endeavor and capacity to imagine and create first and foremost regardless of unhelpful surroundings.

Lee is slightly more cynical:

Only Julian Fellowes, writer of the popular, but shit, Downtown Abbey, which he fails to appreciate most people only watched to see how bad it could get, and Genesis [would exist within Cameron's framework for the arts]. Almost nothing we value would have come through, if you include the fact that further education funding deters those game-changing plucky working-class and lower middle-class kids from pursuing their ambitions, and BBC cuts kneecap radio sessions and radio comedy, and even funded theatres have to pursue West End hits to subsidise themselves.

Thorpe's advice to young people with artistic aspirations, meanwhile, is simple: "Stick to your guns, through thick and thin. Art cannot exist without being a personally fulfilling pursuit, so protect the part of it you feel passionate for and care about and the rest will look after itself."

Stewart Lee (Photo: Getty Images)

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.