Well, what an awful day for the arts.
For those of you who've been buried to the mohawk in a sandpit all day (you know who you are), here's the thing. In the last Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government cut funding to Arts Council England (ACE) by 30% and necessitated cuts to “front line” organisations of 15%. We can ponder why the Government is so into the language of war later. For now let it be said that the Arts Council had all its Regularly Funded Organisations re-apply for the new status of National Portfolio Organisations - and this morning the announcements came in about which Organisations formed part of said National Portfolio.
If that doesn't explain why it was an awful day, maybe this will. Today 200 arts organisations lost their funding completely and plenty more took a massive hit. Standstill funding was greeted with desperate gladness, despite being at least a 4% cut in real terms, as inflation races unemployment for the skies. Even those lucky enough to see a substantial uplift could feel little more than relief and profound twinges of survivor's guilt. Why them and not us? How can I rejoice this 'victory' when surrounded by the corpses of my comrades?
So maybe the Government's language of warfare does become appropriate when we in the arts remember we are all on the same side. Yes Dave, we're all in this together. We've spent the last weeks walking arm-in-arm across no mans' land and today, with the grim inevitability of Greek tragedy, dozens of us were massacred by enemy machine guns.
And let's be clear: the Arts Council are not the enemy here. Told to cut funding to arts organisations by 15%, I don't really see that they could have handled things a great deal better. Sure, I'd quibble individual decisions and there are plenty of losses to mourn. Perhaps some organisations were cut rightly. But we're all in this together. If we start squabbling over who ought to have been funded and who oughtn't, we chuck sticks at the conscripted gunner when we could sniper the general.
That the Government have forced this on the Arts Council isn't simply philistinism, although it's that too. It isn't just bad economics, although it's that too. It isn't even merely the ideological attachment to a state small to the point of being molecular, its only functions being to nod through tax cuts to billionaires and hound benefit claimants. Although it's that too. Sam West put it better than I ever could in his fabulous speech at the Hyde Park rally on Saturday: “it's not just a failure of Government, it's a failure of imagination.” They simply can't imagine the effects of their cuts on people with less money than a solicitor in Kew.
Arts organisations have today made me very proud. There's been a little bit of tactless celebration, and a little sour grapes. But overwhelmingly, the sense has been one of relief, tinged with sadness for those we've lost. Now we know, now we can all move on. We will work together. We must work together. Regional theatres are pretty much mandated to work more closely with emerging companies and just about everyone's behind that. We're all in this together And one of the main things we will do, all of us, together, in this, is fight the hideous Government that put us here. Some of us, Mr Cameron, are more in this than others. Some of us, Mr Osborne, don't even know what “in this” looks like. You may have weakened many of us individually but you have strengthened us collectively. And I've been overwhelmed and delighted by how many organisations have taken very clear aim at you in their press releases today.
I explained some of what was happening to a group of students this morning. I told them that in five years, when they're working for theatre companies, their employers will remember today and shudder. At one point I nearly cried. And when I'd finished, one of them said “that is bare shit, man”.
30-year-old that I am, I wondered about the provenance of the term “bear shit” - whether it refers to the kind of shit that is hard to find in the woods, a particularly rare and awful kind of shit. It turns out that the last bit is right. Bare shit, a particularly rare and awful kind of shit.
That's what we're all in together, and that's what we'll take aim with. Cameron, Osborne: duck!
It's galling to be lumped in with an extremist minority spoiling it for everyone else, when the extremist minority is throwing paint bombs at you.
I am a moderate. I deplore the Government's cuts because of the harm they will do to the most vulnerable, in lost jobs and lost benefits. I deplore them because the ideological justification – that there isn't enough money – is incoherent when you consider that the debt-to-GDP ratio has been higher for two hundred of the last two hundred and fifty years, that most of Western Europe consistently runs higher levels with no problem, and that in 1945 it was five times higher and yet we managed to build, not dismantle, the NHS. It's a reasoned and reasonable position.
I also deplore the cuts because if the Government requested the unpaid taxes of a small number of billionaires, the need for these cuts would disappear in one swoop. Vodafone alone could cover most of the contraction from the last Comprehensive Spending Review. Sir Philip Green, owner of Topshop and British Home Stores among others, last year avoided tax of £285million by paying himself via an account in Monaco. This is his personal tax bill, not that of the company. Though that also goes unpaid because his wife, who does no work for the company besides the arduous business of living in a tax haven, is its nominal owner. Fortnum & Mason, via their parent company Whittington Investments, avoids taxes of £10million every year by the brilliant ruse of being owned by a charitable trust. Among the grateful recipients of this trust's open-handed munificence last year, receiving a donation of £900,000, was the very needy Conservative Party. Yet for reasons mysterious, the Government allows these people not to pay their taxes.
Asking that people pay their tax is a moderate position. None of us wants to pay ours while people of a thousand times our means gets away with paying next to nothing. And last week's budget exaggerated this, cutting corporation tax further and paying for it with a VAT rise that's really going to alleviate pressure on the poor. George Osborne is still looking to the Celtic Tiger, he just stopped learning from the biggest economic contraction in modern European history. That's right, bigger than Iceland.
So I spent Saturday, along with half a million or so other people, walking very slowly through London, demonstrating my support for an alternative to the Government's ruinous programme of cuts. Along with a smaller number of writers, performers, poets and musicians, I also took up residence outside British Home Stores, causing the closure of the shop, demonstrating our belief that Sir Philip Green should pay his taxes. If I'd gone the right way down Picadilly, I'd also have been one of those occupying Fortnum & Mason, as a result of which I'd have woken up in the cells yesterday rather than having a lie in then baking brownies.
My position - the rich should pay their taxes so the poor don't suffer - is a moderate one, yet according to various news reports we “hardliners”, “extremists”, “anarchists” and “radicals” “stormed shops” and “caused havoc”. Actually, we sang songs, read poetry and did some drawings. Noted violent thugs Sam and Tim West performed an extract from The Voysey Inheritance, a 100-year old play. Yobbish lout Dan Ford read a version of Shakespeare's “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, rewritten by violent, angry theatre studies Professor Dan Rebellato. I read a piece by Chris Thorpe about his grandma. Shocking!
In Fortnum & Mason's there was folk dance. Many people sat and read books for a couple of hours. Those eating crumpets in the cafe were undisturbed. I'm tired of the papers conflating “violence” and “vandalism” as though they were somehow the same thing, but in fact we committed neither offence. I understand that at one point someone in Fortnum & Mason's knocked over a box of chocolates, which were promptly tidied up. Here's some footage of the rampaging mob tearing the place to pieces.
Outside BHS, we cleared up all the banners, flyers and related detritus resulting from our 90-minute occupation. It took me bloody ages to find a bin on Oxford street, but that didn't stop my lunatic dedication to tidying up the mess. Extremist that I am, I even sorted recycling from general waste. And I cleared up the few unexploded paint bombs that had been chucked at us by some of the three hundred or so masked and balaclava'ed Black Bloc protestors.
I'm sure most of these Black Bloc kids (balaclavas notwithstanding, it was clear few of them were over 17) were just enjoying the thrill of running about Oxford Street with a huge sound system. But it was members of this faction, not UK Uncut, who did the window-smashing, the paint-throwing and the police-confronting. Even this has been overstated: mostly what they did was run about listening to jungle music. A Metropolitan Police tweet said that they were chucking ammonia-filled lightbulbs: I have no idea how you get ammonia in a lightbulb. Nor, I suspect, do the police or the exhilirated teenagers who were running about.
Meanwhile, the strongest confrontation with the police outside BHS came when one of us berated an officer for his poor manners shoving someone harder than was really necessary. The revolution will be polite. In general though, I have to congratulate the police on the civility of their obedience. They're public servants, after all. It's not their fault the law insists they protect profits on which no tax will be paid, rather than the vulnerable who pay their taxes when there are jobs enabling them to earn above the threshold.
But here's where the police do come in for criticism. Given Black Bloc uniform and behaviour, it should be fairly easy to tell the difference between them and the non-violent civil disobedients of UK Uncut. They wear black clothes and masks or balaclavas. I wore a flowery shirt and my friend Dan's knitted cardy got paint all over it. All of our faces were on display, none of theirs were. Our tactics involve sitting still, theirs involve running around. It would make for a very poor game of Guess Who.
Yet faced with the need to make some arrests, given the widespread paint-throwing and general anarchic running about, at about teatime the police seem to have decided there were a whole lot of easy targets inside Fortnum & Mason. At about 6pm the occupiers were told that if they left peacefully, they'd be free to go. They'd made their point; they're nice people, so they left as requested. Whereupon they were kettled, and one-by-one over the next three hours, arrested. Like the scum they are.
Now, we're reasonable people and we're not stupid. We set about our day's activities knowing full well there was a possibility we might be arrested. Many of us had the number of Bindman's Solicitors stored in our phones, just in case. Civil disobedience is, after all, by definition breaking the law. So I'm not pretending shock and disgust at these arrests. What I am saying is that their manner was shabby and if it wasn't stupid scapegoating of UK Uncut for Black Bloc actions, it was the stupid mistaking of one for the other. It's telling that while everyone in Fortnum's was arrested on suspicion of “criminal damage and aggravated trespass”, in every one of the 140+ cases the damage charges were dropped and only the trespass ones will be taken further. The police outside Fortnum's hadn't been talking to the police inside, or they'd have known no damage had been done. The police inside were probably a bit bored, what with all these thugs sitting down reading books. Vandals!
However adjusted we are to the idea of being arrested, we're not extremists. Neither, for that matter, are the kids chucking paint. The extremists are the ones taking money from the poor and the vulnerable, and giving it to Sir Philip Green, Whittington Investments, RBS, Lloyds TSB and so on. That's why we march. That's why we occupy. We are the moderates.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: