Tory contempt for the arts means we face a second dark age | Stewart Lee

Proposed cuts to English lit courses are symptomatic of the Conservatives’ ignorance of culture and disregard for ordinary people’s access to it

On Wednesday, Dominic Raab, the Minister for Paddleboarding While Kabul Burns, mocked the Labour deputy leader for attending Glyndebourne while railway workers picketed. Who did Angela Rayner think she was? Pick up your stepladder, get back in your slum and eat your fried offal, peasant. “No opera for you!” Raab even winked at Rayner before he delivered the standard “champagne socialist” slapdown, the James Bond assassin-playboy of his own wet dreams, the corridors of power still spaffed with wine-time spatterings. Wasn’t there a dogfight somewhere that Rayner should be betting on? Or a cockroach race in a Victorian pub backroom? Shouldn’t her sort be roaming the streets gathering excrement with her bare hands to tan leather? At least this time the Tories weren’t speculating about the colour of her pubic hair. Progress.

Tories don’t get the arts. In 2015, when Sajid Javid was culture secretary, he resisted attempts to prevent touts from reselling publicly subsidised tickets, designed to ease access to productions, privately at higher rates. Javid said the only people bothered by criminally inflated ticket costs were “the chattering middle classes and champagne socialists, who have no interest in helping the common working man earn a decent living by acting as a middleman”.

Again, the arts weren’t for ordinary folk. Didn’t Javid understand that his job as culture secretary was not just to transform public subsidies into private profits, but to make the arts part of people’s lives, because culture has a value beyond its financial worth? No, he didn’t understand that. Javid should have a notice plastered to his bald head saying: “No tools are kept in this vehicle overnight.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson had realised Raab’s snobbery had backfired; the Conservatives suddenly believed: “Everybody should be able to enjoy arts and culture and other such things across the UK.” This is a lie. The Conservatives’ contempt for culture, and ordinary folk’s access to culture, is well documented and continuing, though reports of Johnson’s office hours oral examinations prove they do believe people should at least be free to enjoy “other such things”.

Sheffield Hallam University is suspending its English literature degree, probably the first of many outside the members’ club of the Russell Group to do so. The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, wants to chop courses where “fewer than 60% of graduates are in professional employment or further study within 15 months of graduating”. She misunderstands the point of studying the arts. Any arts course where as many as 60% of students are in “professional” employment only 15 months after graduating has failed. Spectacularly.

The point of an English degree is to inspire those who take it with such a love of literature that they spend the next decade serving in bars while trying to complete their Great Work. And if that doesn’t fly, they must become English teachers, handing on the same curse of loving literature to future generations, their collective misery deepening like a coastal shelf, just as our collective understanding of the works grows because of their efforts.

I do lots of talks about writing comedy, at various educational institutions, usually for free as I am a virtue-signalling do-gooder. If there’s a fee, I donate it to Arts Emergency, a charity that mentors young people from less advantaged backgrounds who want to work in arts, culture and activism. Eton school’s Literary Society asked me to speak, so I thought I’d give the fee to Arts Emergency. They said: “Student-run societies don’t have budgets for fees.” I didn’t go. But I doubt the post-talk Q&A session at Eton would have gone the way they usually do.

Because what the cool kids usually ask is how to get by financially in the perineum between starting out and either making it, or deciding to quit, without having to waste all their writing time in the world of “professional” employment. Donelan has just told young creatives there won’t even be an English course for them if they so much as think about trying to achieve their dreams. Slapped down by the Tories! Just like Rayner, dipping her dirty toe in the Glyndebourne lake.

Maybe one of these students will become a success whose tax repays their debt to the state many times over. (Hello?) Maybe they will just become that friend of yours who knows intuitively which books to recommend, God bless them. Or maybe, by studying English literature, they just help to keep the understanding of real writing alive in a world where Dumbo Dorries’s beloved Netflix generates paint-by-numbers content by market-driven algorithm. All of these outcomes represent value for money, but they’re resistant to rigorous calculation.

Great Britain falls apart under the Brexit government. We break international law and lie and cheat and trash our overseas reputation; the rivers, whose post-EU protections Michael Gove promised would be strengthened, are suddenly more polluted than ever, pulsating with polio; workers’ rights, which Mick Lynch’s RMT said would be stronger after Brexit, are diluted; musicians can’t tour; small businesses can’t export; a man with a megaphone is broken on a wheel; and our cultural capital, the world of film and music and television and literature, that gave us global soft power, is strangled by a government that seems to want to destroy the arts in an act of… what? Vandalism? Spite? Protection from the kind of questions that people who understand how words work ask?

A museum curator I met on the east coast of Scotland last week said we face a second dark age. But it isn’t Vikings and puritans that are coming to burn our books and tapestries. It is our own government. Donelan crests the horizon in a dragon ship; false beard; historically inaccurate horned helmet; and all. Light the beacons across the land and bury the books in bogs. Maybe, when this criminal gang is finally routed, we will have been able to save something, at least.

• Edinburgh fringe shows, and dates for the 2022/3 show, Basic Lee, are all on sale

• Arts Emergency can be contacted here


Stewart Lee

The GuardianTramp

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