Claire Baker MSP, Scottish Labour’s Spokesperson on Democracy with responsibility for culture, reflects on fifty years since Jennie Lee’s transformation of arts policy across the UK.
It is 50 years since the publication of Jennie Lee’s ground-breaking White Paper, A Policy for the Arts, the First Steps. She moved the nation’s arts policy from a post-war landscape which was still elitist, London centric and establishment focused to a policy which reflected a more progressive, modern, open Britain.
The significance of her appointment as the first Minister for the Arts and the White Paper cannot be underestimated. Her time in office made a huge impact on the arts and began to shape a modern arts policy.
Her agenda was clear – push money to the regions, champion the artist, grow audiences and invest in young people. She was instrumental in delivering a National Film School, launching the Young Vic, supporting youth brass bands and encouraged the Arts Council to offer grants to theatres to work with children.
Jennie grew up in the political hotbed of Fife, coming from a family of miners and political activist. As a relative, and someone who also grew up in Fife, I understand what drove Jennie to seek change.
Scottish Labour has a history of delivery. We introduced cultural co-ordinators in schools to raise the standards of cultural engagement, we invested in Gaelic medium broadcasting, paving the way for BBC Alba and we delivered the National Theatre for Scotland.
But Scotland also has to guard against control or exploitation of our culture for political advancement. The cultural scene in Scotland does not exist to promote soft diplomacy or showcase a Government. The experience of public art sculptor Andy Scott in attempting to show the Kelpies in New York, and his frustration of only working with ‘government-branding messages’, reveals the restrictive conditions that can be exchanged for Government support. The dominant relationship must be what government can do for the arts not what the arts can do for government.
And who enjoys all the experiences that Scotland has to offer? The year round cultural festival programme, the big and small productions, the national and local museums and arts galleries.
An individual’s level of education and income are key factors and those who have a long term physical or mental health condition are less likely to engage with cultural events. The SNP government’s latest Scottish budget delivers significant cuts to the arts both through reducing budgets for the national companies and the heavy cuts being inflicted on local government.
In a time of financial constraint, the arts come under pressure, with no statutory protection. But Labour needs to recognise and promote the value of what it brings to individuals and our communities and take decisions to promote these values. We need to look beyond to seek out opportunities in health care, elderly provision and community cohesion.
What are our priorities as we head forward – as artists, as politicians, as an audience? How do we engage across diverse demographics – reaching those in lower incomes, those that may otherwise be shut out? How does art not just survive but thrive at a time when budgets are constrained – a time where we need to be as bold and imaginative as we’ve ever been?
Increasingly there are groups of young people for whom a life in the arts is just not possible because of a combination of financial constraints and lack of opportunity. The actor James McAvoy recently stepped into the debate saying that while no one detracts from the talent and success of actors coming from privileged backgrounds, “It’s a frightening world when you have one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts. Culture starts to become representative not of everybody, but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”
There are also issues of low pay, and in some cases, no pay across the sector. If we are to have a vibrant, varied, exciting cultural sector, we need to support ways for artists to make a living and the role of publicly funded organisation are key to raising standards across the whole sector. Artists will always seek exposure but we must help guard against exploitation.
A Scotland which is confident and creative is one that builds the future. Labour can help deliver this by placing our values of equality and freedom at the heart of our policies. We can create the environment for creativity to flourish and empowering everyone to be a part of it.
As we celebrate the many steps that have been taken since the publication of Jennie Lee’s White Paper, Scottish Labour should be ambitious about the steps still ahead.