Tom Watson speaks on the future of the creative industries

Publication date: September 11, 2019

Tom Watson speaks out about the dangers of No-Deal Brexit for the creative industries

September 11, 2019

Tom Watson gave this speech, hosted by the Creative Industries Federation, at Somerset House on 11 September 2019.

Good morning, and thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.

I have to say being here today feels a bit like coming up for air, so thank you to the Creative Industries Federation and to Somerset House for hosting this event.

This is a momentous, chaotic time . We’ve seen resignations, purges, and unprecedented attacks on our democracy. To be honest after the week Boris Johnson’s had in parliament I’m not surprised he wants to shut the whole thing down…

It’s been a remarkable few months in politics, but even by those new standards, this past week has been unbelievable.

I saw the prime minister in the division lobby before the votes this week. And he looked physically diminished. I couldn’t help thinking of that passage by Conrad in Heart of Darkness, where he describes the brute, Mr Kurtz:

Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him--some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.

Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last--only at the very last.

But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude--and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.

It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.

This morning I’d like to talk to you about where we go from here, and what it might mean for the creative industries.

Amidst the chaos and the protocols and the posturing in Parliament, it’s begun to feel like a Brexit election is inevitable.

The Prime Minister is desperate for a general election because he thinks it is the only escape route from the prison he has built for himself. 

He and his scorched-earth advisors have backed themselves into a corner and they see no other way out.

An election might well be in his interests, although I doubt he will win it when it comes. 

But that doesn’t make a Brexit election desirable. Far from it. A general election should never be decided on a single issue. Brexit is the biggest issue of our age, but it’s not the only one.

Ask the homeless people clutched in doorways wondering which of their number will survive the freezing winter. Or the vulnerable living in fear of crime as our overstretched police recede yet further from our streets. Or the 20% of teachers expected to leave the profession in the next two years, driven out by a Tory austerity that makes their working lives unbearable.

Ask the communities that have lost their libraries, music venues and community centres. Ask anybody. There’s a lot more than just Brexit at stake.

Yet my concern is that those voices won’t be heard over the braying bullies in the Tory leadership who throughout the forthcoming election will be shouting Brexit “do or die”. The Prime Minister wants a Brexit election, but I don’t think we should give it to him on his terms.

I can’t see much doubt that Boris Johnson is the most disgraceful Conservative politician of a generation. Worse than Margaret Thatcher, I would say, in the scale of the damage he’s trying to do to the country, his naked contempt for democratic institutions – not just the EU, but the UK Parliament, the British constitution, the Conservative party - he’s trying to trash them all.

And yet I do believe that each one of those great democratic institutions: the EU, the UK Parliament, the British constitution and, yes, even the traditional one nation Conservative party, is bigger and better than he is.

That Britain will prevail over Boris Johnson, and that we will set about repairing the great nation that he is trying to destroy.

For that, of course, we need an election. But, as I say, it needs to be about much more than Brexit.

Once Parliament has returned from the 5 week prorogation on which we unbelievably now find ourselves in, our first priority must be to prevent a disastrous no deal Brexit.

The reasons why are almost literally too numerous to list. There is almost no aspect of life, wealth or well-being in Britain that wouldn’t be damaged by a no-deal Brexit.

But today I’d like to set out what I see as the threats to the creative industries in particular.

Many of you here today will have first-hand experience of these challenges.

Two fifths of UK creative businesses surveyed stressed that a ‘No-Deal’ scenario would harm their business’s ability to export, and a fifth would, in the event of a ‘No-Deal', consider moving all or part of their businesses abroad.

We know that self-shrinking isolationism will fail our cultural economy.

The prime example is ease of movement. Touring is the lifeblood of your industries, from orchestras, to dance productions, to individual artists alike. Losing the ability to cross borders quickly and easily would be disastrous, with UK Music warning that the knock-on effects of No Deal could result a 40 per cent income loss for acts touring the EU.

Or consider how dropping out of EU funding schemes that have provided over £40 million a year will impact the sector.

Or how No Deal would instantly threaten our status as a global hub for data flows.
Or how a crude skills and salary approach to migration simply won’t work for the creative economy, where many skilled professionals’ salaries fall below the 30 thousand pound threshold, including musicians, librarians, artists, and graphic designers.

And it’s not just about the practicalities. It’s a matter of principle too.

The narrow, isolationist, ‘bring down the portcullis’ mentality represented by no deal runs counter to everything the UK’s creative and cultural sectors stand for.

Art’s power lies in its capacity for connection, because at its heart, art is about people.

I think Dylan Thomas captured this well when he wrote:

“Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.”

At its best, art articulates the details and differences of our lives, and also helps us to understand our universal experiences, the loves and griefs that all people share.

And that exchange has been at the heart of the creative industries for as long as they’ve existed.

Our painters, playwrights, and composers have traded ideas and influences with their colleagues on the continent for centuries.

That’s why it comes as no surprise that 96% of Creative Industry Federation members intended to vote Remain ahead of the Referendum, or that the Federation has pushed for a public vote.

We need an outward-looking, welcoming Britain; a United Kingdom comfortable and confident with its place in the world, open to new ideas and different cultures.

But that is not the United Kingdom that this Government is shaping. Their bunker mentality only serves to blinker and divide us. 

We need look no further than the settled status system: a national scandal that should shame us all.

Every day we hear about EU citizens seeing their applications rejected, although they’ve lived here for years. People who have built their lives here turned away because they can’t provide paperwork they never thought they’d need.

We’ve already seen the result of the Tories’ hostile environment with the Windrush scandal, and now it’s happening again.

This callous draconian system will weaken the creative workforce. A third of workers in visual effects come from the EU, as do a fifth of those who work in architecture, in video games, and in the performing arts. We should be working to retain their talents, not rejecting their applications to stay.

The people this Government are turning away are our colleagues and our neighbours, our partners and our parents. We cannot and will not forget that, and we will not turn our backs on our friends.

It’s not just the creative industries. Every other sector of the economy has its own list of immediate concerns, because Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are determined to drive the nation off the cliff of no deal and they have failed to prepare for it. People will suffer in pain distress who shouldn’t have to because of medicine shortages.

People may die who don’t have to. Every relevant professional organisation has said so.

Once we’ve stopped a disastrous no deal Brexit, our next priority should be a confirmatory public vote on where Britain goes from here.

I campaigned for remain in 2016. But when the country voted narrowly to leave, I accepted that result. Even after 18 months, when a deal still hadn’t been reached and we still hadn’t left, I kept faith with the result of that vote. Even after two and half years, when Theresa May reached a deal with Brussels, I still said, I can’t vote for that deal, so we must negotiate a better one. Very difficult though it was, I and many others respected the result of the 2016 referendum for a very long time.

But there eventually comes a point – and we are very far past it now – when circumstances are so changed, when so much new information has emerged, when so many people now feel differently, there comes a point when you have to say, actually, no, that years-old plebiscite is no longer a valid basis on which to take such a momentous decision about the future of the United Kingdom.

The only proper way to proceed in such circumstances is to consult the people again in a referendum with a credible option to leave and remain on the ballot paper, as Labour have committed to do.

Why are Boris Johnson’s Tory faction so terrified of that? If there is still a majority for Brexit, what do they have to fear? If there isn’t any more, how can it then be democratic to leave, just because there used to be a majority for it more than three years ago, when so many things were so different?

It’s impossible to coherently argue that the referendum result has been “ignored”. The Tory party has torn itself apart for more than three years trying to deliver it, but failed.

Brexit has proved impossible to deliver, because it entails, in all its conceivable forms, great harm to our country. And our national institutions, and our representatives, are not designed to deliver that. Indeed, they are set up to prevent it.

I know that not all labour MPs agree on the best way forward for Brexit - some sincerely believe that it’s in the best interests of their constituents to get a deal. Some believe profoundly in remain.

But all Labour MPs agree on the social challenges the country faces - from homelessness to police cuts to supporting our NHS and we all agree we need a labour government to solve them.

So let’s deal with Brexit in a referendum - where every person can have their say - and then come together and fight an election on labour’s positive social agenda, on our own terms And once Brexit is settled Labour can fight a general election on our own terms – not on Boris Johnson’s “Brexit do or die”.

Then we will be able to make the case loud and clear for ending austerity and investing in our people, our public services, and our communities.

We will be able to focus on the social issues the nation cares so much about – our NHS, our police forces, our schools, our community centres, our transport infrastructure, our environment, our planet.

That’s why we need to end this Brexit crisis. To focus on those issues. To win an election on that platform.

Boris Johnson has already conceded that the Brexit crisis can only be solved by the British people. But the only way to break the Brexit deadlock once and for all is a public vote in a referendum. A general election could fail to solve this Brexit chaos.

But if, as I accept is currently the case, we are more likely, in the first instance, to have a general election than a referendum, then Labour will decide it’s position at the clause 5 manifesto meeting.

There are many other stakeholders in that room who will have their say, I’m just one voice among many. But I will argue that our position going into that election should be totally clear – we should unambiguously and unequivocally back remain.

We should back remain not for electoral or tactical reasons, but because it is the right thing to do for the country at this time of greatest crisis since the second world war.

I believe we should remain in the EU because on every level it’s important to the future of our country, to the economic wellbeing, the health and the physical security of our people, the sustainability of our environment, the fairness and decency, the richness of our country; in the deepest sense, the kind of country that we are.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as a good Brexit deal, which is why I think we should advocate for remain.  It’s what the overwhelming majority of Labour party members, MPs and trade unionists believe too.

If we go into the election with a clear position on Brexit then we will be able to spend more time talking about all the things the Tories don’t want to talk about: the NHS, crime, education, the housing crisis, the cuts to arts and cultural services right across the country.

And we need the space to discuss these things, because there is so much Labour wants to change, and so much we want to achieve.

Some people argue it’s too late for Labour to win back remain voters, but I don’t believe that.

My experience on the doorstep tells me most of those who’ve deserted us over our Brexit policy did so with deep regret and would greatly prefer to come back; they just want us to take an unequivocal position that whatever happens we’ll fight to remain, and to sound like we mean it.

It would be easy to be four hundred thousand voices sounding like we mean it, because we do. And if we did it we could win, whereas if we don’t I fear we won’t.

If we do win we’ve got an exciting vision for what a Labour government will do to support the creative industries.

Everyone here today knows that the creative industries are a national success story, worth over £100 billion to the UK economy and supporting over 2 million jobs.

And we’ve all seen how culture can transform communities when it’s given the right investment. During Hull’s time as city of culture, we saw how the arts can create jobs, opportunities, and a sense of civic pride.

And in the West Midlands we’ve seen how the creative industries can boost tourism, with visitors flocking to see the backdrop of Peaky Blinders for themselves. Visits to the brilliant Black Country Living Museum are up by almost a third since 2014.

These successes are important, because every community has the right to tell their stories.

Because arts and culture matter – they create jobs, they support livelihoods, and they are the legacy we leave for our children.

But the truth is that these opportunities aren’t available for everyone.

After a decade of brutal Government cuts to local authority budgets, culture spending by councils has been slashed by almost a third.

Communities across the country have seen their theatres close, their museum opening hours curtailed, and the budgets for their local arts centres cut to the very bone.  Music venues are being squeezed by developers on the one hand, and rising business rates on the other.

And it needn’t be this way. Our industrial communities have always been hubs of culture and creativity, from the brass bands that link the collieries from Scotland down to Kent, to the male voice choirs that connect communities from Yorkshire to Treorchy.

Some of you may remember the promises we made in our last manifesto, including a flagship £1 billion cultural capital fund to invest in our cultural infrastructure.  We want to rebalance the creative economy, and we’re actively considering what more a Labour Government could do.

We want to give communities more of a say in their own cultural provision, so we are considering a pilot for a tourism levy. This could offer local authorities another avenue for investing in local tourist attractions, including arts and culture venues.  With the Commonwealth Games ahead, Birmingham is a clear candidate, but we’re keen to hear the views of other local authorities and city regions too.

We have already committed to maintaining the creative industry tax reliefs. Now we’re considering how they could be reformed to improve inclusion across the industry, and we’re looking at how the existing reliefs could be expanded.

For example - and I’m not just saying this because my newest book will be published in the New Year, although it is, it’s called Downsizing and you can pre-order it online at Waterstones for a modest £14.99- we’re looking at a model for a tax relief for literature, and at how a similar relief could support emerging mediums, like podcasting, too.

And we’re looking at how new initiatives, like a UK Town of Culture, could help to jumpstart creative economies outside of our big cities.

So please, consider this an open invitation: if you have policies for the creative industries that you want us to consider for our manifesto, let us know. Tell us what you want to achieve, and how you’d like to achieve it.  My Shadow Team and I are here to listen.

Because we understand what’s at stake: the creative industries are the future. 

In the age of automation and artificial intelligence, Government must support sectors where work is resilient, where jobs are based on the human qualities that machines will never mimic:  creativity, compassion, and imagination.

Whether it’s being a director, a curator, a performer or a sound engineer, the jobs of the future should be open to everyone. But many children are being excluded before they’ve even had a chance. That’s why we want creative subjects to be available to children everywhere, no matter what school they attend.

Research from the Fabian Society found that two thirds of primary school teachers in England say there is less arts education now than in 2010, and half say the quality of what there is has gotten worse.

And it’s happening across secondary education too. Indeed, the Culture Secretary herself oversaw a dramatic decline in arts subjects in schools during her time as Education Secretary.

By the end of Nicky Morgan’s two years in the Department for Education, there were 28,000 fewer students entering Design and Technology, 7,000 fewer entering Arts and Design, and 3,000 fewer entering Drama at GCSE. Across all arts subjects, exam entries for arts subjects plummeted by over 50,000 on her watch.

Labour will put creativity back at the heart of our curriculum and our classrooms.  We will review the Ebacc and introduce an Arts Pupil Premium to give a £160 million boost per annum to primary arts education.

Because having access to the arts in school is good for attainment, good for job prospects, and good for the creative talent pipeline.

But also because the arts help to shape engaged, well-rounded citizens. I’m reminded of Emily Bronte’s words, when she wrote of the power of imagination.

She describes a place:
“Where thou and I and Liberty

Have undisputed sovereignty.”

Creativity and imagination empower us, they make us conscious of our agency for change.

If we teach our children to design new worlds, create new characters, evoke brand new experiences, then changing our world for the better might seem possible for them too. And we need that now, more than ever.

As our country is on the precipice, pushed right to the edge by Boris Johnson and his cronies, looking around this room gives me hope

Each of you represent part of an industry that awes and inspires people everyday

You represent the best of our country in these dark times

And I know you speak with one voice on the biggest issue that we have faced in my political lifetime.

I want you to know that Labour hear you, we’re in your corner and we’ll do everything I can to support you.

So thank you for having me, and I look forward to a lively Q and A!

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