Wednesday, 20 April 2011

What are we fighting for?

There are many legends about infamous Winston Churchill put downs. Most of them are, indeed, very witty (“Sir you are drunk,” “Madam, you are ugly but in the morning I will be sober,”, etc., etc.) and, more often than not, they reinforce my long held view that he was a drunk, misogynistic old bastard. Once I've got an opinion on someone I rarely change my mind but occasionally, just occasionally, I'll gain some new insight and a bit of respect. Recently, I gained some respect for the old bulldog for one of his more overlooked quips.

During the war, so the story goes, he was asked why he did not cut subsidy to the arts to aid the financial burden of the war effort. He responded “Then what are we fighting for?”

Indeed, what those soldiers, officers, civilians, politicians, citizens, etc. were fighting for was Britain. Make no mistake, Great Britain is not just some geopolitical entity, formed by some accidents of Roman Imperial collapse, mediaeval Royal lineage and the Ordnance Survey boundaries. Great Britain is a cultural entity. It's often forgotten about, because like all cultural entities it is constantly evolving, changing and absorbing other cultures. You can't always pin down exactly what British culture is. This fact is, for me at least, its most enduring beauty.

The Coalition Government (and I'll say Coalition, not Tories, because as far as I'm concerned the Lib Dems ought to be tarred with the same acrid brush) chooses to believe that British culture is in fact English culture, and that English culture consists of some castles, a few paintings and statues you ought to pay to look at and the cricket or the football. They bemoan the loss of our culture to the immigrants. They whine that the youths of today have no interest in their own country. Then they cut the arts because they say it's not as important as medicine, or the army, or policing, proving, once again, that they are missing the point.

Yet Mr Churchill seemed to get it just right. He, a Conservative Coalition-leader too, seemed to grasp what British culture means. If a nation's borders are its body, then its culture is its soul. A soul is a living thing; it's not just historical culture. Culture continues to thrive and expand and be participated in. Nowadays British culture consists not only of English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish culture; it has the benefit of Indian, Pakistani, Pan-European, East Asian, American influences, and more besides. It is our greatest national asset, something you cannot put a price on, something that people have died to preserve.

Cutting funding to the arts is a barbaric act. I can understand why people will sigh and say 'if we're cutting healthcare, we ought to cut the arts first' but I'd suggest they're looking at the debate through the wrong end of the telescope. It's not just about funding artists to keep them employed. Artists will always create art, whether they get paid or not; in this respect they're never going to be like doctors, soldiers, policemen. What matters is that money needs to go into the arts to keep it available to every single person in this country. It is not a luxury to engage with your own culture; it is a right. Museums, art galleries, theatres, books, cinemas, concert halls should all be free to attend, otherwise what's the point in being British? What does being British even mean if you've never seen a play by Shakespeare, or seen a film by Alfred Hitchcock, or read a book by Charles Dickens, or listened to Elgar, or read a poem by Robert Burns, or viewed a landscape by Turner?

Essentially, every one of us has the right to engage with our culture, irrespective of how much money we have. At the end of the day, I'm fighting to maintain a particle, an atom, a minuscule droplet of public spending, the vast rewards of which are not just monetary; they enrich our very souls.

Isn't that worth fighting for?

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