Commitment to culture skin deep

Geraint Talfan Davies looks at what the UK and Welsh manifestos have to say about culture and the arts

Only the purblind would have expected cultural issues to get much space in an election defined by the global financial crisis and by the crisis in our politics that has been crystallised through the MPs expenses scandals. But given that manifestos should be there to give us a rounded sense of what kind of society parties wish to create, one might have though that the cultural dimension would have merited rather more consistent space than it has got, especially in the Welsh manifestos.

One is left with the unfortunate impression that culture is rather more important to the English than the Welsh.

The most obvious lacuna comes in the Conservative manifesto that manages not to mention cultural policies once in its 118 pages. This is all the more disappointing since one might have expected culture to play a crucial role in delivering an empowered ‘big society’. It is surprising, too, since the Conservative culture spokesman, Jeremy Hunt, sometimes touted as a future leader, has been assiduous in courting the artistic world in recent years. It is true that you can get a statement of where the party stands on some culture issues on the party’s website, but the commitments stated there are not included in the blue, cloth-bound manifesto.

The Welsh version of the manifesto – overall, less a distinctive document than an example of what the car manufacturers used to call ‘badge engineering’ – is similarly devoid of any statement on culture. What does this relegation say about culture in the Conservative hierarchy of values?

The same question can be asked following a reading of Plaid Cymru’s manifesto. For a party that might be thought to have a vested interest in the distinctiveness of Welsh culture and arts, it seems incredible that the only reference in the document comes in a section labelled ‘Our national treasure’, essentially a section on the Welsh language. The language certainly merits a section of its own, and the contents of the Welsh Government’s language measure are undoubtedly important. However, it is startling that a nationalist party should have nothing to say about the role of culture and the arts in shaping our society, aiding our economy and projecting Wales in the world.

The only commitments it offers are to support the independent news pilot scheme for ITV, to campaign for more money for S4C to develop digital services, and for more help for Welsh language print media.

In philosophical terms the Labour Party’s UK manifesto does rather better with a section on ‘Communities and creative Britain’, in which there is a recognition that “the sporting, artistic and cultural life of Britain is rich and diverse, internationally renowned, and as vital to our quality of life as it is to our national prosperity”. The manifesto goes on to claim that culture and arts are vital to a modern economy and “stand for more than material success, reminding us that society is not a market place”. Labour’s UK manifesto – on many policies effectively a manifesto for England – lists a series of commitments:

  • Five hours per week of art, music and culture for every child and young person, through learning to play a musical instrument, visiting local museums and joining film clubs or taking part in local theatre.
  • Continuation of the Creative Partnerships scheme that is fostering work by local arts organisations in deprived areas.
  • Extension of the National Theatre’s £10 season to provide reduced rate tickets for theatre productions.
  • Creative bursaries for gifted young people at the start of professional careers;
  • more operational independence for museums and galleries.
  • Reviewing how tax incentives to encourage philanthropic support can be strengthened.

This is quite a list, but how it will survive the next comprehensive spending review, I leave you to guess. There is also a section on Britain’s creative industries with additional commitments to tax incentives for the film and video games industries, to guaranteeing the BBC’s licence fee until 2017, to supporting the three pilot news services for ITV in Scotland, Wales and the north east of England, and to universal access to high speed broadband to all parts of the UK within a decade.

By comparison, the party’s Welsh counterpart document seems rather thin. There is no broad endorsement of the importance of culture in Welsh life, although the document does welcome the new sense of Welsh identity that devolution has brought. It does celebrate Wales’s multi-ethnic communities, and affirms that pride in the Welsh language is a vital element of Welsh self-confidence. But in terms of commitments it restricts itself to continuing support for the BBC and S4C, backing the news pilots for ITV and continuing to invest in Welsh medium education. On any measure this, too, does seem a very limited vision for our cultural future.

This leaves the Liberal Democrats. The UK manifesto makes broadly the same affirmation about the role of culture in our society as the Labour Party, although it is expressed in rather more prosaic language:

“The Liberal Democrats believe that the arts are a central part of civic and community life. They contribute to innovation, education and diversity and social inclusion, and the creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Britain’s culture and heritage play vital role in attracting visitors to the UK and boosting the very important tourism industry”.

The party commits itself to maintaining free entry to museums and galleries, to setting up a Creative Enterprise Fund, to cutting red tape for live music performances, ensuring a strong BBC and changing the way in which the National Lottery is taxed so as to increase the funds for good causes. This is another area where it is easier to see a fit between Labour and Liberal Democrat policies than between the latter and the Conservatives.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat’s manifesto echoes the broad approach of the UK document saying that “Wales’s rich cultural heritage is a calling card to the world, and crucial to developing prosperity and a high quality of life”. However, it does not give a sense of building out from the broad vision of culture in Welsh life, with a distinct set of proposals. It has more the feel of tacking a few things onto the UK set: making St. David’s Day a national holiday, giving Visit Wales – currently a Welsh Government department – greater independence in promoting tourism, developing a creative industries plan, greater safeguards for listed buildings, and a series on measures on the Welsh language.

All in all this will provide little comfort for those arts and cultural organisations that are nervously awaiting the first Welsh Government budget following the General Election. The feeling in the sector is anything but starry-eyed. Rather, it is a question of fear riding on the back of realism, something that will be shared with almost every section of society that is heavily reliant on the public purse. But whereas there is broad acceptance of the case for services such as health and education, this election has provided further evidence of continuing political nervousness in too many quarters about making the case for culture.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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