Now that the votes are counted, the leaflets binned and the posters removed, what will the elections of 2016 mean for the arts?
Needless to say, cultural matters did not figure largely in the debates largely dominated by speculation about what the elections would mean for the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But the return of the Scottish Nationalist and Labour governments to Scotland and Wales and the strengthened grip of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein will inevitably have an impact on the arts in those devolved nations. So too will the change of leadership in London, with Sadiq Khan returning the capital to Labour control. Here’s a round-up of what we can expect to happen. Or at least, what politicians have promised will happen.
It’s perhaps inevitable that it was only in Scotland that cultural matters, albeit briefly, made election headlines. (See Gunning for the SNP, overleaf). The SNP has always encouraged a linkage between culture and politics, seeing the promotion of specifically Scottish cultural institutions as a route to increased support for independence. “Our culture and heritage has and continues to shape our experience of and about our nation and the world” asserts the SNP’s 2016 manifesto. Since taking power in 2007,
the governing party has been keen to avoid austerity in arts funding, certainly in comparison with the rest of the UK. Arts funding and arts administration have all been revamped under their watch and cash has flowed to Scottish cultural organisations with a strong international flavour. However, last year’s budget did see cuts to the funding reach of arts agency Creative Scotland, a cut which is believed to have prompted the departure of Laurie Sansom, the artistic boss of National Theatre Scotland, who protested publicly about the subsequent cut in NTS’s funding.
The new Scottish government has pledged to make more changes. Scotland’s first ever culture strategy is planned and the SNP will also establish a Creative Industries Advisory Board to advise ministers directly on the sector. It has also promised “a new dedicated unit for film and TV, based within Creative Scotland, to streamline public sector support for the screen sector”. How that differs from the current situation, where arts funding agency Creative Scotland already has a dedicated team for film, is unclear.
The SNP also says it will develop a National Touring Fund for Theatre to help more theatre productions tour more often and there is a promise to “enhance” the Edinburgh Festival Expo Fund, which allows productions to tour abroad.
There are also promises to “refresh” the Youth Music Initiative, which supports young musicians and is designed to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to play an instrument by the time they leave primary school. Whether that ‘refresh’ will include extra cash remains to be seen. The Scottish government has already pledged an extra £2.5m of funding for Sistema Scotland, the national version of the successful Venezuelan model. It has also promised a “Cultural Experience Fund” to ensure that every primary school has the opportunity to visit Scotland’s historic estates, theatres, museums and galleries.
Free access to national galleries and museums is also among the SNP’s commitments, as is a pledge to widen the touring of national collections – looking beyond traditional settings and going directly into communities and schools.
Culture is less of a political hot potato in Wales, although the Welsh Labour Party and its main opponent, Plaid Cymru, continue to claim the mantle as the best protector of Wales’s unique cultural treasures, particularly the distinctive Welsh language. But even the language issue, although intermittently controversial, seems to be a weak determinant of voting patterns. Instead the cultural debate in the Principality, such as it was, focussed on a promise by the Labour Party to create an A55 “culture corridor”, an upgrade of the road which many tourists use to access Welsh attractions.
Other manifesto pledges by the incoming Labour administration, which will run a minority government, include creating a new “challenge fund” for arts investment and the merger of functions of the Welsh Historic Environment Service, Cadw and the National Museum of Wales to create a new body “Historic Wales”. It also promises to encourage community ownership of assets like libraries, museums and arts centres if they are under threat and allowing cultural organisations
to help tackle poverty through “harnessing the power of culture”, by giving them access to funds through the new Wales Wellbeing Bond.
As a minority administration, Labour will be dependent on support from Plaid Cymru (it has eschewed co-operation with the Welsh Tories or UKIP). Plaid Cymru told electors it would place art and culture “at the heart of all our policies” from local government finance through to health and education. It wants a statutory duty on local councils to be a “convener, enabler and access provider” of arts and culture; seeks at least an additional 1% in Wales’ share of UK lottery funding for the arts and a new body, Creative Wales, to unlock other funding sources; it also supports apprenticeships in cultural organisations. Plaid also promised to enable National
Museums Wales to create a dedicated National Art Gallery. Plaid’s influence could well lead to the creation of a new football museum in Wrexham. It’s a manifesto commitment for them and Welsh deputy culture minister Ken Skates has already promised to look into the idea.
There’s cold comfort for the arts world in Northern Ireland, where both the major parties, on either side of the religious divide, failed to mention any policies for culture in their manifestos, bar a commitment to supporting respectively the Ulster Scots dialect and the Irish language. Inevitably, this means that cultural issues will not feature in the debate over the programme for government.
Sadiq Khan’s victory in the London Mayoral elections should be good news for the arts in the capital. Khan is likely to continue the cultural focus demonstrated by his predecessors in the post and took the time to address the Creative Industries Federation during the campaign. His top-line pledge is a “Love London pass” offering discounts to residents, because he believes that “too many Londoners don’t get to make the most of our city’s cultural assets”.
Khan also wants to develop an infrastructure plan to find out how the city can maintain its position as a leading cultural destination. Creative Enterprise Zones would be set up where artists would be able to work and live and small venues will be protected from the threat of development.
A London Borough of Culture initiative will be established, allowing a different London borough to become the focus of a celebration of arts and culture in the city.