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Simon Rattle is right: Britain is becoming a cultural desert – and that’s a political choice

Photo by Giorgio Parravicini on Unsplash

Over the decades, Arts Council England (ACE) and the BBC have done more to sustain classical music and the other performing arts than anyone. But there is nothing coincidental about ACE now taking the knife to the nation’s orchestras and opera companies, and the BBC’s attempt to kill off the BBC Singers and slash spending on its orchestras. As Rattle put it in his cry from the heart in London, these cuts are “rooted in political choices”.

Those choices are made by government. Yes, Darren Henley at the Arts Council and Tim Davie at the BBC are the chief executives carrying out these cuts, and both men should have fought them far, far harder than they did. In the end, though, they are bending the knee to ministers who seem wilfully indifferent to the fate of Britain’s musicians and the performing arts, and who at times can appear actively hostile to them.

There is absolutely nothing inevitable about the cuts and choices that Rattle denounces. No one disputes that Britain’s public finances are suffering. No one is unconcerned that the NHS and schools are on the rack too. Our country is in trouble; we all get that. But only in the arts is public spending so umbilically part of a culture war.

Countries similar to ours are making diametrically different choices. France has just increased its culture budget by 7% and now spends £3.86bn on culture, a record. Germany has also recently boosted arts spending by 7%, after the culture minister told the Bundestag that the government was “specifically strengthening the arts, culture and media in the face of the unprecedented crises of our time”. By comparison, ACE now spends £629m a year in England.

It is a minor miracle – no, actually, it’s a major one – that classical music manages to maintain as big a presence in British life as it does. This is partly because, on classical music, we so often default to a poisonous argument about elitism when we should be talking about access and opportunity to a wonderful art form. Our Murdochised media, with its diminished arts coverage, does not help.

It wasn’t always like this. The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics depicted a capacious British culture, accessible to all and appealing in multiple registers. That’s disappeared now. The gates have gone back up. This doesn’t happen in other places. In many western countries, young people are given government vouchers to use on arts spending. That would be inconceivable here.

But the killer is the deliberate and strategic meanness over spending. As Rattle said, musicians have long been brilliant at doing more with less. But there is a limit to what even they can manage. A survey in November found 98% of British musicians concerned about having enough income and 90% worried about being able to afford food. Many are abandoning the profession.

The government is not just turning the screw on today’s musicians; it is also choking off the prospects for tomorrow’s. Music and the arts are excluded from the EBacc curriculum that ministers want 90% of secondary pupils to be studying by 2025. They have no place in the attainment 8 and progress 8 measures by which schools are rated. Headteachers are under pressure to ditch subjects by which they are not judged. This may not actually be a conscious conspiracy to eradicate music, but the effect makes it look like one.

The decline of music in schools inevitably means tougher times for music colleges. I am a governor at Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance in south London. What I see and hear there is one of the joys of my life. The standards are world class, and the creativity level amazingly high. I’m proud that a higher proportion of our students come from state schools and different ethnic backgrounds than at equivalent colleges.

But our governors’ meetings these days are dominated not by music but by money – the lost income after Brexit, the freeze in student fees, the cuts to London weighting, the surge in pension costs – and the ravages of inflation. The ingenuity that goes into overcoming these problems is heroic. But it feels as if we are battling to keep the doors open for young musicians and dancers in the midst of a hurricane that continually threatens to slam them shut.

There is something very wrong indeed with a country that disparages the creative arts in this way. No one is saying that symphony orchestras matter more than cancer treatment units. But the real-world consequence of government policy is that the arts in general, and classical music in particular, are being deliberately moved into a place from which the vast majority of people will effectively be barred.

The next government should have the courage to be as outraged by this as Rattle. If Keir Starmer becomes prime minister, there will be pressure on him from many quarters. But a prime minister who can play Beethoven sonatas on the piano, as Starmer reportedly can, is better equipped than most to understand why music and the arts have to remain an integral part of the better Britain that we so badly need to become.

This article was amended on 27 April 2023. An earlier version said that the Arts Council England chief executive was Nicholas Serota. He is in fact the chair and Darren Henley is the CEO. Also ACE spends £629m a year, not £446m.

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