Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
Up in the dress circle of British high culture it’s not easy to find many kind words for the Conservative Party. One of our most distinguished contemporary novelists, Hilary Mantel, recently published a collection of short stories entitled “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”. Labour can comfortably bank the arts vote, counting such luminaries as Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Anthony Gormley and Grayson Perry among its supporters. Speaking to the Guardian (who else) at a Labour gala this summer, the author Jeanette Winterson said: “People in the arts tend to be on the left. We tend to be social democratic.”
We shouldn’t take that lying down. The arts are not a left-wing monopoly. Indeed, there’s a strong case that we are the real party of culture.
Look at our record. Michael Heseltine was instrumental in making the Tate Liverpool possible. The National Lottery, a major source of grants for arts and heritage in Britain, was set up by the Major Government. In this Parliament, we’ve increased the Lottery grant to Arts Council England, allowing them to make lower spending reductions than other public bodies.
But what’s distinctive about the Conservative approach is that we don’t think support for culture should be the sole responsibility of the state.
All of our greatest culture and heritage institutions were founded on acts of private philanthropy. Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of art and antiquities became the British Museum. Sir Henry Tate (of Tate & Lyle fame) gave his money, collection and name to a gallery for British art. The Royal Shakespeare Company has its origins in the generosity of Charles Flower, a 19th century Stratford brewer. Flower donated a two-acre site next to the Avon, and in 1875 launched an international campaign to build a theatre in the town of Shakespeare’s birth. More recently, donors were invited to sponsor a brick or name a seat to help fund the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s new stage.
We wanted to strengthen the culture of private giving, so in 2012 we launched the Cultural Gifts Scheme, allowing individuals to donate works of art to the nation and reduce their income tax or CGT bill by 30 per cent of the object’s value. The first gift made under the scheme, Beatles letters and handwritten lyrics, was donated to the British Library in 2013.
We’re quite comfortable acknowledging that, as well as being a public good, culture is also a serious industry for Britain. Heritage tourism is worth £26 billion to the UK economy, theatre is worth around £3 billion. The creative industries: music, broadcasting, games and fashion, add £36 billion, account for 11 percent of our exports and employ 1.5 million people. That’s why we’re backing them in the tax system, bringing in tax credits for animation, games, high-end TV and theatre.
Yes, there will always be controversy about the use of taxpayer funds to support culture, particularly in the form of direct grants. Art is subjective – that is its power, and many Conservatives feel uneasy about the state ruling on what’s artistically worthwhile. The Millennium Dome is a notorious example of why ministers should be kept as far away from these decisions as possible. Personally, I do think there is a role for subsidy, but it should focus on supporting new talent and on institutions outside London and the South East.
Yet, unlike Labour, we don’t assume that direct financial support is the only thing government can do.
Channel 4 (another Conservative initiative) is a good example of how you can use the power of government to back creativity without costing the taxpayer. Founded in 1982, Channel 4 was allocated a share of the broadcasting spectrum and given a public service mission to innovate and take creative risks. Advertising was permitted, but it was freed from the need to make a commercial rate of return. I would argue it’s been a great success, particularly in terms of reaching a younger audience and bringing indie filmmakers into the mainstream. Steve McQueen and Danny Boyle both got their break from FilmFour for example.
The BBC tax ’n grant model is not the only way of doing it, and as Conservatives we must continue to be the party that drives innovation in the way we support culture.
So that’s the practical case but there’s also a values argument. The left claim artistic values are their values, yet putting on a play, producing a film, or even writing a novel is an entrepreneurial act. You have to take risks, work hard to an uncertain outcome and you only succeed if you’re passionate about the product. That’s what we’re all about: backing people who work hard to get great ideas off the ground.
And to those who say culture and commerce don’t mix, I say look at Shakespeare, a man who as a shareholder in the the Globe made a tidy return from bums on seats, and who would certainly vote Tory if he were alive today.