Opinion with Baroness Jane Bonham Carter: Positivity in a time of crisis

Baroness Jane Bonham-Carter
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Jane Bonham Carter, Baroness Bonham Carter of Yarnbury is a British Liberal Democrat politician and member of the House of Lords. She sits on the Editorial Board of Drama & Theatre magazine, and is Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport

What a terrible toll this pandemic has taken, and the creative industries – and the arts and cultural programmes that underpin them – have been among the hardest hit.

Today the future looks slightly less bleak for the sector than it has done. The government listened and financial help has been forthcoming. More recently there has been the very welcome reopening of outdoor performance venues.

And to keep up the positive tone – during lockdown the sector has shown imagination and innovation and found new ways of collaborating and working with communities across the land – streaming performances and exhibitions. I know teachers have been valiantly delivering classes via Zoom, and have benefited from the wealth and variety of what is being streamed, and I hope in so doing have accessed a more diverse and inclusive offer for their students and that this will continue post-COVID. But of course, not everyone has access to the internet or to their own instrument. And more generally, online events are no replacement for the pleasure of actual shared experiences.

Then the government still has to wake up to the fact that high quality universal arts education is essential for our creative industries. Their failure to acknowledge this is reflected in a school curriculum that downgrades creative subjects and an apprenticeship scheme inappropriate to the needs of the creative industries. The curriculum must be based on STEAM, not STEM, and the current apprenticeship offer amended to reflect the needs of the sector. The pandemic means that for students and apprentices, getting into the creative professions will be more difficult than ever. And as the sector faces losing new and diverse creative talent, skills development becomes ever more important, and flexibilities must be introduced to facilitate this.

Then there remains the serious problem of the plight of freelancers – 72% of those who work in the creative industries fall into this category – compared with 16% across the rest of the economy – and most have not been able to access the government's support schemes – ‘the excluded’. Without a work force no amount of cash will revitalise the sector.

Finally and crucially if we don't get the EU/UK deal right, post Brexit, another catastrophe for the creative industries seems likely and imminent.

But I end with the words of an optimist, writer James Graham:

‘Yes, everything from huge opera houses to tiny pub theatres are sitting in darkness, which is impossibly sad. But there's a tiny light in that darkness. Literally. We call it a ghost light — a bulb on an upright stand that is placed on the stage every night when everyone leaves. That light is shining right now on the stage of every dark theatre in the land. And you don't leave a light on if you don't intend to come back.’

The fact is that culture will be central to getting us through the period of change that will inevitably follow this pandemic, both to the recovery and the renewal.