29 Mar 2011

“I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

Sam West's amazing speech on 26th March, headlined with a William Morris quote.

Originally blogged here, thanks Sam!

Speech to the TUC’s March for the Alternative,
London, 26th March 2011

“I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

William Morris said that.

Early trade unionists were quite clear about how a 24-hour day should be divided: eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours for our own improvement. We are not just here to work our arses off for fifty years and then die.

We believe, don’t we, that art is for everyone? That just as you shouldn’t be denied good healthcare because you’ve got less money, you shouldn’t be able to experience better art because you’re rich. Ballet is not just for the middle classes, it’s for miners’ children too. In fact, isn’t there a film about that? And a show running in London and on Broadway? And in eight other countries across the world, making millions for the treasury?

Let no-one tell us we can’t afford it. The entire Arts Council budget of this country BEFORE CUTS is £450m, or 17p per person per week. That’s half what we spend subsidising the arms trade. It’s 5% of the money lost to corporate tax evasion every year.

A Robin Hood Tax on the banks would raise that money in eight days.

And theatres are not wasteful places. My union is fighting for an actor's minimum wage of £400 per week. It wasn't people on those sort of wages who produced this deficit.

These cuts are ideological. Conservatives don’t like art being cheap because it educates and enlightens working people. The history of the Trade Union movement is stuffed with stories of people who educated themselves - who, like William Morris, refused to believe that learning was something for the few – through night school, local libraries or universities that didn’t cost them nine grand a year. Only with systems like that in place can a society truly call itself big.

The coalition’s right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing. On Monday, Michael Gove said that children should be reading 50 books a year. Good idea. So why not stop local authorities closing 520 libraries? Has Michael Gove worked out how much 50 books a year cost? Is he only governing the country for the people who can buy them, not borrow them? That’s not just a failure of government, it’s a failure of imagination. Perhaps he should go to more plays.

This hands-off approach to local authority funding means councils are given budgets that are impossible to balance and the Government says “it’s none of our business”. In Somerset, an arts budget of £159,000 - 0.0004 of their total grant – has been cut by 100%. Not only does that affect the provision of exhibitions, classes, theatre trips and touring on a scale down to the tiniest village in a largely rural county, it also sends a message to anyone who lives in Somerset: the arts are not for you, don’t think you have anything to say, or if you want to say it, go somewhere else.

But the arts are a flourishing pyramid. Cut funding to the smaller regional organizations, and sooner or later you starve the larger ones to death. Britain becomes a cultural desert.

This government has proved again and again that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Sometimes the bottom line isn't the bottom line. Some things in life are worth it anyway. When we've been sacked, or chucked, even if we're just going into a gallery to escape the rain, art reminds us that our own unfortunate circumstances are not all we have — that we really are all in this together.

Art is essential for dealing with the tricky condition we call human. Access to it is not a luxury, it’s a right worth fighting for.

Thank you.

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