Sunday 1 January 2017 00.05 GMT
The government should not underestimate the value of our arts output in terms of global branding and wealth generation
The sector that, more than any other, wanted a different result in the EU referendum could now be at the heart of what we might call an international rescue mission.
The creative industries, for nearly a decade the fastest-growing part of the economy, are Brand Britain. They play exactly into the prime minister’s stated three priorities – a new industrial strategy, greater social cohesion, and negotiating positives from Brexit. Their response to last June’s result demonstrates their resilience and ability to deal with everything thrown in their way. In the early summer they were clear about the country’s future. Indeed, so much so that, when the final figures for the Creative Industries Federation’s members survey came in, I feared it looked a bit North Korean. The UK’s TV and film companies, video games, digital creative, designers, fashion, publishers, great museums and galleries, architects, advertisers and universities had voted 96% to “remain”.
When the deed was done, the sector could have indulged in a lament. Instead it began the slog towards identifying opportunities from the great European reverse. At first glance this might have seemed a forlorn task. In Theresa May and Philip Hammond the government was in the hands of two figures with little track record of interest in the sector. Yet what if this interpretation is wrong? This is not a plea to an imperious government to do more for the arts; it is more a pointer to a government eager for “wins” about what the arts can do for it.
First the stats: the UK’s creative industries contribute almost £90bn net to GDP; it accounts for one in 11 jobs, a rate rising more quickly than all other parts of the economy. These jobs are also among the least likely to be lost to automation. Many of our commercial companies are shining examples of ingenuity and entrepreneurship. The link between culture and tech and science is strong and growing. Our publicly supported arts are largely very well run, deploying scant resources with great skill.
Across Britain, from Margate to Manchester, from Bristol to Nottingham, many arts organisations play a pivotal role in civic life. The more far-sighted local authorities (and there are many) have for two decades seen a stunning return on their investment, in terms of education, public health, tourism, jobs – and, most of all, pride. There is every prospect that Hull’s city of culture, which launches on 1 January, will be a resounding success. It has already attracted significant plaudits and investment. The Great Exhibition of the North in Gateshead and Newcastle follows in 2018.
Hull city centre
Hull is the city of culture for 2017. Photograph: Neil Holmes
For sure, some arts organisations continue to act as self-affirming liberal bubbles, allowing their detractors to denounce them as part of an “elite”. Mostly this is a lazy misperception. Many organisations are deeply ingrained in communities. Look at the English National Ballet’s current work with people suffering from dementia. What other form of activity has regularly delivered so much on so little?
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What other form of activity also defines the UK so clearly? In China, in late 2013, David Cameron was intrigued when asked in a social media chat why he couldn’t get the makers of Sherlock to hurry up with more episodes. Around the world, our fashion and design, our video games and theatre, are our calling cards.
During the coalition government, the then business secretary, Vince Cable, didn’t even recognise the creative industries as an industry, an omission that made no economic sense at the time or since. In the course of this month, Greg Clark will have the opportunity to rectify that and formally to place the sector where it belongs – at the centre of British economics and politics. In her forthcoming major speech on life after the EU, May has the opportunity to reinforce that message.
Will they? Ministers are at least listening and engaging. But old thinking is not hard to find. A month ago I was part of a UK delegation to Shanghai working on collaborations from virtual reality to Shakespeare. Culture was combining with education, tech, science and health. Then, in front of his Chinese audience, Jeremy Hunt gave a keynote speech on behalf of the UK government in which he described culture secretary Karen Bradley as running the “ministry of fun”. Bradley was less than thrilled at the depiction. Of all people, didn’t Hunt, a former secretary of state for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, know that there is nothing soft about the creative sector?
There is a gaping hole in the government’s strategic approach – its consistent refusal to understand the link between arts education and economic success. If the prime minister wishes to limit the number of EU nationals working in the UK, she will need to make sure there are enough Brits to take their place. In this sector alone, there are 17 defined skills shortages in areas such as animation and visual effects.
Meanwhile, head teachers are being discouraged from investing in design and technology, arts, music and drama. Not only has this policy deprived children (particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds) from enjoying a rounded education, the economic consequences are already playing themselves out. Creative learning is not just a route into the arts, it is also essential across the economy. Ask app inventors or car designers. Oddly, Brexit might be the spur to sort this. If we don’t have ready access to the talent that filled our skills gaps for years, we have to find our own.
The cause for my tentative optimism lies in political self-interest. Which other sector can do all of the following – help improve social mobility, help repair societal rifts, drive exports, grow the economy and define the UK internationally?
John Kampfner is chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation