Chris Bryant Speech

February 18, 2015

The shadow Minister for the Arts discusses Labour's Cultural plans in Birmingham.

You're Beautiful: Government and the pursuit of beauty

I know it seems intrinsically odd that a politician should venture to say anything about beauty. Politics is, after all, as they say, show business for ugly people.

But fifty years ago today Jennie Lee published her White Paper on the Arts and although it had a remarkably prosaic title – A Policy for the Arts – it had an enormous ambition, namely to bring beauty within the grasp of the many and not just the few.

Let me start with what I am not going to say.

As Jennie Lee put it, 'no one would wish state patronage to dictate taste or in any way restrict the liberty of even the most unorthodox and experimental of artists'. So, despite the fact that The Times recently described me as slightly worse than Stalin, I'm not in the business of laying down statutory guidelines on nationally acceptable taste. Some like Handel, some like One Direction. Some want film to transport them to another world, others want it to reflect their own lived experience. Some like Old Masters, other prefer BritArt. To my mind there's no hierarchy of the arts; and artistic snobbery, whether inverted or not, nearly always betrays insecurity.

There are good philosophical reasons for not being prescriptive about the nature of beauty, too. The idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is as old as Greek democracy. Shakespeare put it in the mouth of the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost, 'Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye'. The Scottish philosopher David Hume agreed, arguing in 1741 that 'Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.'


But is beauty the business of government at all?

I would argue that unless we want a dry, stale and unprofitable national life, beauty must be part of the business of government, not mandating taste but not leaving everything to the vagaries of the market either.

Why do I care about it?

For four reasons.

Firstly, because when I grew up I became very close to one of my grandmother's cousins, Jean Gracie, who trained at Glasgow School of Art in her youth but was never allowed to finish her course because it was thought inappropriate for a proper young girl in an Edwardian household. Forced to be right-handed and deprived of her full education, she exhibited at the Royal Academy, yet I often wonder what might have been if she had lived in a more enlightened era.

Secondly, I joined the National Youth Theatre when I was 13 and toured Europe in Richard II (playing Aumerle) and Good Lads at Heart (in which, as the only public school boy in the company, I played the druggy toff). The NYT didn't make me a better actor – but it certainly broadened my horizons and gave me confidence at a time when things were pretty bleak in my homelife.

Thirdly, I have always enjoyed murdering a song, whether playing Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera (directed by Ian Bostridge) or at karaoke – and for that matter played the cello appallingly in a Scottish Youth orchestra performance of the Arsenienne suite. There is something very educational about bravely going where you might not entirely succeed.

And fourthly I have been privileged to study and work in some of the most beautiful buildings in the world, including the 900 year old Church of All Saints in High Wycombe and Christchurch Cathedral where I sang in the choir and was ordained. Walking underneath Westminster Hall's hammerbeam wooden roof suspended on the wings of angels it is difficult not to admire the phenomenal Creative Industries of the 14th century – and want to protect that inheritance and enable others to share in the privilege of that beauty.


Beauty has always been a part of Labour's historic record.

Let's not forget that it was the Christian Socialist Octavia Hill who dreamed up the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty and Richard Acland, later a Labour MP, who was one of the largest major donors to the National Trust.

When George Lansbury was made First Commissioner of Works in the Labour minority government of 1929-31 some thought it was a bit of a non-job. But he had a vision, to rescue some of Britain's greatest historic monuments and make them accessible to everyone. He had the hideous cottages around Stonehenge pulled down, he rescued Hadrian's Wall from collapse, he used armies of the unemployed to reconstruct historic moats, and he gave the poor of London a chance to breathe clean air in parks that matched those built for the nation's wealthiest.

As Octavia Hill put it, this was creating 'a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made'.

It was the same in 1945. Rather than let advertising hoardings ruin the beauty of rural England, the Labour Government introduced the Town and Country Planning Act, protecting both the countryside and our historic built environment.

Then, in 1965, came Jennie Lee, cementing the arts alongside her husband Nye Bevan's NHS at the heart of Labour's mission. Theatres were built up and down the country, concert halls opened, galleries started. The National Theatre finally came into existence – and the English National Opera – the People's Opera.

And in 1997 the Blair government was determined to drive through a policy of free admissions to our national galleries and museums. Despite opposition, it was a phenomenally successful policy. Just take one museum – between 2000/2001 and 2010/2011 attendances went up at National Museums Liverpool by 269%.

We trebled the arts council budgets during the Blair/Brown years.

We established the UK City of Culture and stimulated regional TV production.

We invested in regional museums through the Renaissance programme and rescued regional theatres with £25 million of investment after the 2001 Boyden Review.

So, what does a Labour policy look like now?

Very different from 1965. Then Jennie was able to announce that every budget was being doubled – and that if anyone wanted more, then they should ask for it next year. That isn't where we are at today. Finances are tight at every level of government – national and local. So in the words of Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, this is a time of love in a cold climate.

But there is much we can do. And much we must do.


First comes access.

Access because we still hold to the principle that the arts are for everyone.

Jennie Lee put it this way. 'More and more people begin to appreciate that the exclusion of so many for so long from the best of our cultural heritage can become as damaging to the privileged minority as to the underprivileged majority. We walk the same streets, breathe the same air, are exposed to the same sights and sounds.'

That's why Ed Miliband spoke about how Labour will ensure a universal entitlement to a creative education for every child on Monday. That's the bedrock of a good education, nurturing the whole person, giving children new ways to express themselves as individuals and to work as part of a team, giving them new ways of interpreting the world around them, seeing things through someone else's eyes.

That's why we say no school can be considered an outstanding school by Ofsted unless and until it offers outstanding artistic opportunities to its pupils.

But it can't end there. The foundation document of the Arts Council (from 1946) states very clearly that its role is 'to increase the accessibility of the fine arts to the public throughout Our Realm', but the truth is we have to contend with some depressing trends.

The Warwick Commission came up with some devastating statistics last week. On the one hand the wealthiest, best-educated and least-ethnically diverse 8% of the population accounted for 44% of all attendances at live music. On the other, participation in music in schools by children aged between five and ten has dropped from 55% to 37% between 2008/9 and 2013/14.

At the same time the Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report review has pointed to the enormous gap between spending on arts organizations in London and in the rest of the country – the combined DCMS and Arts Council England spending came to £68.99 per head in London and just £4.58 in the rest of England. Even allowing for the fact that companies like Matthew Bourne's New Adventures in Motion Pictures has an office in London but primarily tours outside the capital and that many London arts companies outside the tourist centre struggle for funding – the truth is that we cannot allow the country to continue to be divided between artistic feast and cultural famine.

Again, Jennie Lee was right. 'too many working people have been conditioned by their education and environment to consider the best in music, painting, sculpture and literature outside their reach.'

That's why the new Prime Minister's Committee for the Arts that Ed Miliband announced on Monday will have as its first task devising a means of extending access to the arts across the whole country.

There's more we can do to enhance universal access. We will maintain our policy of free admission to national museums and galleries, we will work with the new English Heritage to maintain the fabric of some of our great historic assets and we will actively work with the National Trust and the Historic Houses Association to promote our national heritage at home and abroad.


It is one thing to have access to beauty. But it is equally important that we have strong creative industries; that people can make a living out of their artistic talent; and that those industries can thrive across the globe.

The latest Creative Industries statistics suggest that 2.62 million people now work in the creative industries – a figure that has risen nearly 4% year on year since 1997 – representing one in every twelfth job in the UK. The evidence is clear – creativity is the long-term powerhouse of the UK economy.

Many of the creative industries, of course, suffer from exactly the same problems as other SMEs – lack of finance, skills shortages and complicated legislation.

Equally importantly, though, we recognise that government needs to play a role in enabling individuals to make a living out of the arts. We introduced the Public Lending Right in 1979 to give authors an added source of income and we introduced the artists resale right in 2006 to ensure artists could benefit from sales of their works. We stand by them both.

Because we recognise that the people who subsidise the arts the most are artists themselves, working often for minimal pay, we will ensure that all DCMS sponsored bodies pay the Living Wage and we will end exploitative zero-hours contracts in this sector as in others.

We will review vocational artistic education and training for artists, musicians, dancers and actors to ensure that it is value for money for students and prepares students for the tough world of working in the arts.

And we will work to ensure that the number of apprenticeships in the creative industries rises so that young people from any background can consider a career in the arts rather than just those who are prepared or able to take on unpaid internships.

Above all, we recognize that subsidy of the arts is an investment that pays dividends across the whole economy. An actor who performs one year at the Arts Council funded Birmingham Rep may next year be in a blockbuster movie bringing millions of pounds of investment to the UK. Visual artists work with the video games industry and it in turn sparks new movie ventures and franchises. In one year a musician may work in an orchestra, a band and a school. This is a mixed economy where small amounts of public subsidy can make dramatic differences. That's why we're proud that Labour trebled the Arts Council budget between 1997 and 2010 and why we're worried that after the Arts Council has already suffering a 30% cut since 2010 a further five years under the Conservatives would mean returning to 1930s levels of public spending.


But we also want people to be able to enjoy beauty in whatever form it comes.

As Jennie Lee put it, 'in any civilized community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.'

For many, the UK's amazing broadcasting sector will be intrinsic to that. I say amazing because it genuinely is world-beating. I don't just mean the BBC. I mean the whole mixed ecology, not least because I well remember, back when I worked for the BBC, being congratulated by a taxi driver in Brussels for all the brilliant BBC programmes he enjoyed, Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect and Inspector Morse.

It's an extraordinary success story – that whole ecosystem. The BBC, funded by the licence fee and not by advertising, freed from pursuing ratings but required to provide something for every person in every household. ITV, bound to the public by its remit to provide more than just the commercially obvious. Channel 4, retained in public hands but always ready to be a bit more edgy and naughty. And Sky – yes, Sky – discovering its role as a producer of exciting new drama and comedy. All of them making programmes that hold a mirror up to Britain and project us on an international stage – including Broadchurch, Hinterland, A Casual Vacancy, Indian Summers.

Of course there are things we can criticize. There should be more arts programming on the BBC. Channel 4 is almost bound to have offended someone. It is depressing that according to the Creative Skillset employment census, fewer BAME people work in the industry today than five years ago. Programmers, commissioners and producers need to think harder about reaching out to wider audiences. Ofcom should monitor on-screen and behind-screen diversity as provided for under the Communications Act. And yes, the British Film industry needs to embrace every type of diversity – gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality – not run from it. That's the lesson the best and strongest international companies have learnt – and it's time we learnt it too.

Of course there are other subjects I have not talked about – publishing, dance, libraries, tourism – but I want to end with another quotation from Jennie Lee: 'Nor can we ignore the growing revolt, especially amongst the young, against the drabness, uniformity and joylessness of much of the social furniture we have inherited from the industrial revolution. This can be directed, if we so wish, into making Britain a gayer and more cultivated country.'

That's what Ed Miliband was talking about on Monday. A universal entitlement to an artistic and creative education, creativity as the powerhouse of a strong economy, our cultural heritage at the centre of government.

All of us will have our own instances of heart-stopping beauty – the moment in The Winter's Tale when Leontes discovers that Hermione's statue is warm – the almost balletic farce in Noises Off – the Wilton Diptych – the aria Sherza Infida from Ariodante – Amy Winehouse's Back to Black – Wolf Hall on BBC2 – the view of Salisbury Cathedral immortalized by Constable.

We are custodians of a great heritage, but more than that our humanity imbues us with a passion for beauty and a need to create. That's why there could be no greater ambition than to ensure that after five years of a Labour government more people than ever before have read a book, been to the theatre, taken up an instrument, visited a gallery, had their novel published, jumped up and down at a live concert, opened a gallery and started a career as an artist, a sculptor, a writer, an actor, a musician, an arts administrator, a video game designer or a film director. If we can achieve that we will almost certainly be a healthier, livelier, happier and more prosperous country.

But at the very heart of our arts policy is what some would call art for art's sake – the intrinsic value of art, something crafted out of nothing, something that gives form to our hopes and aspirations, something that touches the core of our shared humanity.

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