From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: Arts budget cuts
We must oppose the cuts to the arts budget with our usual argument, namely that it is justified by the tourist revenue it attracts. This has of course never been proved, and indeed it cannot be. To be frank I doubt if it is true. It has however worked well in the past, largely due to our diligence in getting seats for cabinet ministers at Covent Garden and the National Theatre, and by introducing them to the famous personalities in the arts world. Ministers are notoriously star-struck, and when properly softened up by genuine celebrities – people famous by virtue of their talent and achievement, not simply the posts to which they have been appointed – they have been persuaded to resist the economic evidence
Although we cannot say so in public, the fact is that we do not subsidise the arts because people want to see and hear great works interpreted by famous (and expensive) performers. If people want entertainment they will pay for it. We do not subsidise football matches or speedway or pop music festivals or cinemas showing Hollywood movies or music halls or greyhound racing; these are the chosen pursuits of the great mass of ordinary people, and they are quite happy to pay for them. The point is, we subsidise arts that people do not want to see, certainly not in large enough numbers to make quality performances financially viable.
We subsidise them because it is important for Britain to hold its place in the civilized world. It is, I concede, unfortunate that the great majority of those of us who appreciate art and occupy the subsidised seating at Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells, The Festival Hall, the National Theatre and the RSC are the well educated and better-off members of society. It is not however unreasonable for people like us, who strive so hard to increase the prosperity and improve the lives of the masses, and who pay such high taxes, to receive some small recompense for our great contribution.
In a few years the current financial and economic crisis will have been resolved, but it would be tragic if we emerged from it without those cultural institutions which make us so envied by other countries which, by a purely economic calculus, are more successful and prosperous than we are. When people talk about the glories of the first Elizabethan age they are not talking about sixteenth century GDP and balance of payments; they are talking about Shakespeare and Marlowe and Beaumont and Fletcher. If we stop subsidising the arts, the chances of the second Elizabethan age being remembered in the same way as the first will have gone for ever.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 1 September 2010