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When it comes to arts spending, it’s London vs the rest of the UK

In the latest arts budget, 47 per cent of spending will go to London-based organisations – why does the capital’s cultural excellence have to come at the expense of projects everywhere else?

There is a parochial myth that outside London’s metropolitan centre exists a breed of Neanderthal Northerners who, clutching a Greggs pasty and standing in a bleak milieu worthy of a Shane Meadows film, have no desire to access the arts. This image, combined with the startling figure from last year that cultural spending amounted to £69 per head in London and just £4.50 per head elsewhere, illustrates the London-centric nature of UK arts funding. For this reason, there was a collective intake of breath this week as Arts Council England (ACE) announced the funding for 2015-2018. Surely, arts programmes across the regions cried, the budget discrepancies couldn’t get any worse? Surely the rest of the UK would get their fair share, rather than being lumped together as simply “Not-London”? Alas, it was not to be. The ACE reiterated once again that when it comes to culture, it is London vs The Rest of the UK, with the capital snatching 47 per cent of the total budget.

Elitism is an accusation bandied about the art world, from Saatchi to opera, but the label of exclusivity transcends galleries and genres with simple geography. The ACE have the arrogance to declare that London vs the rest of the UK is an equal match worth fighting, and one in which funds can be distributed equally between the two. The extensive nature of their report proves that despite their attempts to disguise the vicious nature of the cuts with a garish pink font, the ACE cannot claim ignorance about the existence of a 14:1 imbalance of London’s arts budget compared to the rest of England. The existence of both an “ACE National” Twitter account and an “ACE London” Twitter account is telling and leads to the question of why two accounts are even needed when “Arts Council England” is now synonymous with just London.

As councils across the UK ruthlessly scrap their arts budgets – such as Newcastle City Council halving their already pitiful culture grants –  it’s the job of the ACE to represent not just London but all of England (as – spoiler alert! – their title would suggest). Far from meeting the challenge of helping failing regional arts companies, predictably and depressingly, they have continued to adopt their policy of cutting London budgets by a snail pace of 2 per cent and in doing so they maintain the London-centric status quo. The ACE’s budget accounts for just 0.5 per cent of government spending and while this should be higher, crucially, it should be distributed fairly. The current idea that art can be justified only if it provides revenue is toxic, but even more so if it that cannot be accessed by 86 per cent of the population who do not live within reach of an Oyster card. The bold scope of London’s cultural projects cannot be denied, yet their work does not have to come at the expense of projects outside the capital.

On the surface, the council’s decision to decrease London-based funding by £6.6m while increasing that to the rest of the UK by £9.5m surface appears to be a heroic,  Robin Hood-esque action of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Unfortunately, while cuts have been made from cultural fat cats like the English National Opera, the Southbank Centre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, increases in funding to the Manchester International Festival, the Northern Ballet, and Mima (Middlesbrough’s Modern Art Gallery) are still anomalies. It goes without saying that Whitehall is biased towards London, but coupled with the similar inclinations of the National Lottery and individual philanthropists – 90 per cent of their donations go straight into London-based projects – the picture gets even bleaker. The ACE drastically needs to reform their funding so that they can help struggling companies instead of the already successful.

Despite the headlines about their supposed “shake up” of arts funding, little change has been made. At a time when local authorities and the central government are both reluctant to provide grants for the sake of cultural prosperity, the ACE should be distributing their portfolio as evenly and fairly as possible. As it stands, it feels like we’re being presented with an ultimatum: move to London or you’re on your own.

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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