The coalition is making the arts more elitist

The hardest part of opposition is watching Cameron's culture vultures dismantle our attempts to make the arts inclusive

Being in opposition takes some getting used to. As a former minister, you don't just lose your job and the enormous resources of the civil service, you also have to watch programmes that you were involved in being gradually dismantled. Listening to the various announcement about the cuts in arts funding over the last couple of weeks, I have been filled with a deep sadness.

When Labour were in government, we tried to move beyond institutions and to focus our cultural policy on people. For too long, cultural funding had been focused on organisations: creating them, supporting them and building an infrastructure to house them. We didn't shy away from investing in Britain's museums, galleries and heritage sites, but we always knew that this was only one half of the equation. The old approach was centred on giving people access to high culture as passive consumers. Our philosophy was to reach towards something hopefully more fulfilling and meaningful, with people given the tools to be part of the conversation themselves. The big idea was to nurture citizens with creative capabilities. For this we needed new and different programmes.

It's easy to underestimate the importance of this. The creative industries remain the fastest-growing sector of the economy; more jobs are being created here than anywhere else. Socially, too, creative expression is central to citizenship, equipping people to express themselves and communicate ideas and emotions as part of a wider democratic conversation. Most of all, many people believe culture is essential to a good life. Music, dance, literature and the visual arts open up a rich and intensely rewarding world. It is a world that should not be the preserve of the few.

I learned these things not through a civil-service briefing but though my own life. I remember singing as a chorister in Peterborough Cathedral, having won a music scholarship to go to school there, and realising for the first time in my life what true excellence was. Finding myself in a truly inspiring setting, singing some of the greatest music ever produced, I learned what it meant to express myself as I had never before. The experience was priceless.

In parallel to its investment in cultural institutions, Labour launched programmes that reached out to young people across the country who would otherwise have no contact with the arts. The most notable of these was Creative Partnerships, a programme that over nine years reached thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of young people. This was a programme which was able to reach into communities far away from the metropolitan heartland. It did not try to create cultural organisations in these communities but focused on developing the capacity of individuals to go out and discover the arts for themselves. It was highly active in places like the Forest of Dean, the Durham dales and Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast, as well as within some of most disadvantaged inner-city communities, among people who are not able to access the cultural infrastructure enjoyed by the more affluent in London, Birmingham or Manchester.

Recent announcements have made clear is that it's precisely these programmes which have been targeted by the coalition government. Gone already are Find Your Talent and A Night Less Ordinary, initiatives designed to give young people new opportunities to engage with the arts. Last week it was announced that all funding would be withdrawn from Creative Partnerships after the completion of the 2010/11 academic year. What we're seeing, in other words, is a return to the old one-sided approach to arts and cultural funding. The aim is to maintain a cultural infrastructure for those who already have an interest in the arts while doing nothing to develop the interest of those who do not.

We should not be surprised that the coalition has decided to protect the country's "crown jewels", like the Royal Opera House, at the expense of programmes that reach out to new audiences and new communities. These major cultural institutions are largely patronised by those who vote for them, which is why they will continue to enjoy their wealth of high-quality cultural offerings. What is more surprising is the response of the Arts Council – supine, to say the least. It has capitulated to the government, and in doing so failed to maintain the arm's-length principle. The result is the sweeping away of opportunity for a whole generation of young people who would otherwise have had an opportunity to develop their cultural interests.

The Arts Council points to its support for programmes such as Artsmark and Arts Awards. But Artsmark, which recognises the achievements of schools in offering pupils arts opportunities, is simply a tool for reinforcing divisions. The schools who are committed to the arts get an award; those who are not simply carry on as they were. This does not change the experience of the vast majority, nor does it help children who go to those schools.

I'm not so naive as to argue these programmes should have been protected at all costs – cuts had to be made across the public sector. But there is an underlying elitism to the government's approach that will set cultural policy back for years. The disproportionate way in which young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been targeted is shocking. While the young and underprivileged of Toxteth, Brixton, Moss Side and Sparkbrook have their cultural provisions scrapped, the very people responsible for the economic crisis are enjoying subsidised galleries and exhibitions in the City. They'll be laughing all the way to their banks.

• David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham and a former minister for culture. A collection of essays on arts education, Born Creative, will be published by Demos later this month.


David Lammy

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