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


On Wednesday, Dominic Raab, the minister for Paddleboarding while Kabul Burns, mocked the Labor deputy leader for attending Glyndebourne while railway workers were picketing. Who did Angela Rayner think she was? Pick up your stepladder, go back to your slum and eat your fried offal, peasant. “No opera for you!” Raab even gave Rayner a wink before delivering the standard ‘champagne socialist’ slapdown, James Bond’s playboy-assassin of his own wet dreams, the halls of power still splattered at the wine hour. Wasn’t there a dogfight somewhere that Rayner should bet on? Or a cockroach race in the back room of a Victorian pub? Shouldn’t his family roam the streets picking up excrement with their bare hands to tan leather? At least this time, conservatives weren’t speculating about the color of his pubic hair. Progress.

Curators don’t understand the arts. In 2015, when Sajid Javid was culture secretary, he resisted attempts to block touts from reselling publicly subsidized tickets designed to make it easier to access productions privately at higher rates. Javid said the only people bothered by the criminally inflated ticket prices were “the talkative middle classes and champagne socialists, who have no interest in helping the ordinary working man earn a decent living by acting as a middleman”.

Again, the arts were not for ordinary people. Didn’t Javid realize that his job as culture secretary was not just to turn public grants into private benefits, but to integrate the arts into people’s lives, because culture has value beyond beyond its financial value? No, he didn’t understand that. Javid should have a notice taped to his bald head saying, “No tools are kept in this vehicle overnight.”

By Wednesday afternoon Boris Johnson’s spokesman realized Raab’s snobbery had backfired; the Tories suddenly believed: ‘Everyone should be able to enjoy arts and culture and the like across the UK.’ This is a lie. The Conservatives’ disregard for culture and ordinary people’s access to culture is well documented and continues, although reports of Johnson’s Office Hours Oral Examinations prove they believe people should at least be free to enjoy “other such things”.

Sheffield Hallam University is suspending its English Literature degree, likely the first of many outside the Russell Group members’ club to do so. Universities Minister Michelle Donelan wants to cut streams where “fewer than 60% of graduates are in professional employment or further education within 15 months of graduating”. She misunderstands the value of studying the arts. Any art course where up to 60% of students are in “professional” employment just 15 months after graduation has failed. Spectacularly.

The purpose 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 teachers of English, passing 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 through Their efforts.

I do a lot of lectures on comedy writing, at various educational institutions, usually for free, because I’m a virtue-signalling benefactor. If there are fees, I give them to Artistic emergency, a charity that sponsors young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to work in arts, culture and activism. The Eton School Literary Society asked me to speak, so I thought I’d donate the cost to Artistic emergency. They said, “Student-run societies don’t have a fee budget. I did not go. But I doubt the post-talk Q&A session at Eton went as usual.

Because what the cool kids usually ask is how to financially navigate the perineum between getting started and either succeeding or deciding to quit, without having to waste all their writing time in the job world” professional”. Donelan just told the young creatives that there won’t even be English lessons for them if they’re thinking about trying to make their dreams come true. Slapped by the Tories! Just like Rayner, dipping his filthy toe in Lake Glyndebourne.

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

Britain is collapsing under the Brexit government. We break international law, lie, cheat and destroy our reputation abroad; the rivers, whose post-EU protections promised by Michael Gove would be strengthened, are suddenly more polluted than ever, throbbing with poliomyelitis; workers’ rights, which Mick Lynch RMT says it will be stronger after Brexit, are diluted; the musicians cannot turn; small businesses cannot export; a man with a megaphone is broken on a wheel; and our cultural capital, the world of film, music, television and literature, which has given us global soft power, is being strangled by a government that seems intent on destroying the arts in an act of… what? Vandalism? Spite? Protection against the kind of questions asked by people who understand how words work?

A museum curator I met on the east coast of Scotland last week said we were facing a second dark age. But it is not the Vikings and the Puritans who come to burn our books and our tapestries. It is our own government. Donelan crosses the horizon in a dragon boat; false beard; historically inaccurate horned helmet; and all. Light beacons across the land and bury books in bogs. Maybe when this criminal gang is finally routed, we could have saved something, at least.

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