Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion's ability, but I saw by the inspector's face that his attention had been keenly aroused.
'You consider that to be important?' he asked.
'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan-Doyle The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)
The dog that hasn't barked in this election is arts policy. But of course, some will say: the only thing that matters in this election is Brexit. And that's exactly how we got into this mess, with the atomisation of politics, meaning that people think you can vote for something like Brexit in isolation. In fact, as mature human beings, we should be able to care about several things at once. And the arts have been an important part of government policy since the 1940s, so it's not just the lack of imagination in the major parties' arts policy that is upsetting, it's the sheer lack of attention to the arts.
Neither the Green Party nor Plaid Cymru mention the arts at all. UKIP say nothing except that they're going to 'raise funding for new arts and heritage facilities in coastal towns', which is weird. As far as I can see, the SNP haven't issued a new manifesto for this election (but I'm happy to be corrected on this).
The three main English parties have a bit of a policy vacuum on the arts. Look at what the Lib Dem Manifesto promises:
Maintain free access to national museums and galleries.
Move towards introducing ‘safe standing’ at football clubs, requiring the Sports Grounds Safety Authority to prepare guidance for implementing this change.
Protect the independence of the BBC and set up a BBC Licence Fee Commission, maintain Channel 4 in public ownership and protect the funding and editorial independence of Welsh language broadcasters.
Protect sports and arts funding via the National Lottery.
Maintain current standards of intellectual property (IP) protection with continuing co-operation on enforcement of IP generated in the UK and working within the EU to ensure the continuation of territorial licensing of rights.
Create creative enterprise zones to grow and regenerate the cultural output of areas across the UK.
Examine the available funding and planning rules for live music venues and the grassroots music sector, protecting venues from further closures. (pp. 65-66)
Of these seven pledges, five of them are just to keep things the way they are. The other two is to reintroduce some standing at football grounds (which is weirdly specific) and the creative enterprise zones across the country (which is weirdly vague).
The Conservative Manifesto doesn't have a section on arts policy, but under the clumsily-titled 'Stronger Communities from a Stronger Economy' section, there's a bit on 'Prosperous towns and cities across Britain' in which we find this:
Our towns and cities excel when they have vibrant cultural life. Britain’s arts and culture are world-beating and are at the heart of the regeneration of much of modern Britain. We will continue our strong support for the arts, and ensure more of that support is based outside London. We will maintain free entry to the permanent collections of our major national museums and galleries. We will introduce a new cultural development fund to use cultural investment to turn around communities. We will hold a Great Exhibition of the North in 2018, to celebrate amazing achievements in innovation, the arts and engineering. We will support a UK city in making a bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games. And in this 70th Anniversary Year of the Edinburgh Festival we will support the development of the new Edinburgh Concert Hall, reaffirming Edinburgh as the UK’s leading festival city and a cultural beacon around the globe. (p. 25)
Again, a lot of this is a pledge to keep things as they are (continue support for the arts - ha ha ha - and, like the Lib Dems, keep museums free) or reannouncing things that we already know (new Edinburgh Concert Hall). The rest is warm words ('vibrant cultural life') and pledges without detail (the Great Exhibition of the North, supporting a bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and the new cultural development fund). Like the Lib Dems they want to ensure that culture is spread throughout the regions, though they have little idea how to do that (they mention elsewhere that Channel 4 will relocate outside London, though they'd already announced that before they called the election, so it's hardly new). Not a lot of thought has gone into this.
And then there's Labour. One of the most interesting developments of this election is that the Labour Manifesto has been on the whole much bolder and more impressive than the Tories, even though it was the Tories who chose to hold a snap election. It has a section entitled 'Culture for All' under the section of 'Leading Richer Lives'. It's two pages, so I will summarise the policies:
- A £1bn Cultural Capital Fund administered by Arts Council England to upgrade the cultural and creative infrastructure, along the lines of enterprise zones.
- Maintain free museum entry & use the CCF to raise museum visibility.
- End Local Authority cuts which will help libraries and museums.
- Continue to mark the centenary of World War One.
- £160m per year to support arts in schools.
- Work to raise pay and employment standards for arts performers.
- Work to increase diversity in radio, film and tv.
- Work to improve the financial viability of digital arts work.
- Expand business rate relief to small music venues.
- Work to make internet companies remove dangerous material more quickly. (pp. 95-96)
Well at least there are some specific ideas. 1, 5 and 9 are clear and straightforward, though £1bn over five years is not a huge amount of money, especially if you're talking about infrastructure (and if it's administered by the Arts Council, does this mean Scotland is excluded?). They are also maintaining free museum entry, which makes me wonder - if no one is planning to reintroduce entry fees, why is this even a policy (like 'we make a solemn pledge not to murder zoo keepers')? It's not clear if 3 means reversing (restoring) the cuts or just freezing them. 6, 7, 8 and 10 are worthy aspirations but without much detail about how this will be done. And I'm not sure why 4 is in this section.
It's the Cultural Capital Fund that is the headline policy and this clearly shared the aspiration of the Lib Dems and Tories to spread cultural provision across the country (it is currently concentrated to an astonishing extent in London). It is welcome to see some flesh on the bones, unlike in the other manifestoes. But actually the policy is very top-down; it has nothing to say about how exactly more engagement in the arts will be fostered. How will people who never go to a concert, or a gallery, or a theatre be encouraged to go? Why, really, should they? How might national culture be rethought to appeal to the whole country? It is good that the arts will be supported in schools (and Labour and the Lib Dems have pledged to protect arts in the eBacc curriculum which is very welcome), but what about the primary curriculum too? This was a major growth area until Osborne's austerity cuts started to bite. So often, the arts are the first to go.
The Cultural Capital Fund is part of Labour's £250bn National Transformation Fund, a investment-for-growth fund. To that extent, it is embedded in their wider policy; for the Tories, culture is plainly an afterthought. The Liberal Democrats' reference to protecting IP looks small-scale and technical, but at least it shows that they are thinking about the arts in the context of Brexit. If we slip out of the EU without any deal on protecting intellectual property rights systematically across Europe, we will be isolating ourselves from that continent just at the time when, in theatre, we seem finally to be in a two-way cultural exchange and dialogue (not just sending our plays over there). It would be good to see more sense of the arts policy being integrated into all thinking across the parties.
On the whole, I think all of these manifestoes are rather unambitious, rather unimaginative, pretty disappointing. There's way too much keeping things as they are when, if there's one good thing that Brexit might do for us it's to challenge us to think differently about everything we do. Our political parties are not ready to think about the arts that way.