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Rishi Sunak’s Freudian Slip on the Arts

This week, Rishi Sunak created a storm when he suggested arts workers find other jobs – but the comment wasn't just a slip, it was reflective of a government that is overseeing the slow death of Britain's culture sector.

Asked by ITV News if the UK’s “fabulous musicians and artists and actors” should get another job after the Covid-19 crisis, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that “everyone is having to find ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality.” On Twitter, ITV News Politics interpreted this as “@RishiSunak suggests musicians and others in arts should retrain and find other jobs.”

This prompted uproar from Britain’s creative community, already furious after ten years of austerity in which arts funding has been slashed (especially outside of London – going up to 100% in Newcastle in December 2012), culminating in huge lay-offs in the entertainment and arts industries amidst the pandemic, with 313 redundancies planned at Tate Enterprises and possibly thousands at the Cineworld chain amongst them.

Following a huge backlash, Sunak clarified that he was talking “about employment generally and not specifically about the music or arts sector.” He pointed to the government’s £1.57 billion culture package – none of which has yet been distributed – while ITV News deleted their tweet and amended their report of the interview.

The process by which ITV News, whose national editor, Allegra Stratton, left at the start of the pandemic to become Sunak’s director of communications, accepted this retraction is worthy of an article in itself, emblematic as it is of the debasement of Britain’s public sphere. But what Sunak said, however much he tried to deny it, shows how little the Conservatives know or care about how the country’s artists have been affected by the pandemic, or indeed how we have lived over the last few decades.

It is not surprising that Sunak – a former head boy at Winchester College and Oxford PPE graduate who married a billionaire and became a partner at a hedge fund whose dealings led to the government bailout of the Royal Bank of Scotland, precipitating the financial crisis of 2007-2008 – has no idea about how most people in the UK, and especially artists, struggle to get by.

Using myself as an example: I worked for eleven years in public and private sector admin and data entry jobs after graduating (with huge and still untouched debts) in 2003 while I developed my practice. Now I try to support my writing and filmmaking through journalism and teaching, another industry under assault from the Tories, worrying about the lack of further self-employment support, aware that the public speaking that provides a large chunk of my income are unlikely to return soon even if there is not another national lockdown.

I have taught myself how to make and run a website, do my accounts, and produce a podcast; almost every other creative artist in the country has a similar story, and many will have had it far harder than me. My oldest friend, in a band, has lost £20,000 this year; the music industry alone employs hundreds of thousands of technicians and engineers, promoters, venue managers and staff, as well as people working in transport and storage. They are already highly skilled, and not all of them will be easily able to pick up a new trade, or afford the kind of training that Sunak suggests.

But at least Sunak, a devotee to the financial sector, keeps himself to finance. Since 2010, the Conservatives have made three economists and a chartered accountant their Secretaries of State for Culture, while their two most recent appointments, Nicky Morgan and Oliver Dowden, both trained as lawyers.

Defunding and destroying the arts makes no sense even on basic capitalist terms, given that the sector contributed £10.8 billion to the UK economy in 2019 and £2.8 billion to the Treasury in taxation, providing much-needed productivity, but there is a deeper problem with the Tories’ approach, in which artists – and anyone who understands the value of art beyond the monetary – are conspicuous by their absence.

Trickle-down economics might be a hoax perpetrated by the wealthy, but ideas do percolate through society, both through the study of arts and humanities and through cultural production, in ways that remain (infuriatingly, for neoliberals) impossible to measure in financial terms.

Lockdown should have convinced everyone of the worth of the arts – both because the absence of cinema, theatre, live music and comedy reminded us of how cultural events bring more joy and thought into our collective experiences, and because so many of us used television, films, books and music to guide us through the boredom, disorientation and sadness of the pandemic.

This leaves me with two questions. Firstly, while it may be possible to survive without culture, why would anyone want to? Secondly, regarding the issue of retraining – and it’s one that is seldom raised within our thoroughly degraded political media – what fucking jobs?