Joshua O’Connor works in the private equity executive search and advisory industry and was a local council candidate for Lewisham Central in 2018.
Much of the UK’s soft power is driven by the creative industries. British music, art, theatre and film have huge global appeal projecting an image of the UK around the world. If you go on holiday, chances are, in a bar or restaurant you will hear the song of a British musician in the background or see an advert for a film made in Pinewood studios advertised on a billboard at your landing airport.
Back when we could still travel, I was in Paris and got chatting to a friend of a friend about a tricky subject which had been dividing many Brits that week. It was not the progress of the latest Brexit negotiations at the front of my colleague’s mind, but my opinion on the forthcoming North London derby that weekend, broadcast live on French TV. When in New York, the conversation focused not on the US President’s forthcoming trip to Scotland, but the latest series of The Great British Bake Off.
It is easy to look back and wonder whether the richness of our culture, and subsequent soft power was a given. American political scientist, Joseph Nye defines “soft power” as a persuasive approach to international relations through political values, culture and foreign policy. The UK’s tapestry of high-quality creative output – from Jane Austen to Game of Thrones to Harry Styles – gave Britain the title of the “soft power superpower”.
Our superpower status created a platform for trade and prosperity promotion, and projected an image of an open, liberal and free society. The perception of a country is not understood only through political standing, but by its citizens’ impact on the wider world.
We see this when viewing other countries on the world stage, particularly in the world of sport (which I appreciate is not strictly the creative industries). I suspect, for example, millions of Mixed Martial Arts fans associate Dagestan with legendary fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov and Ireland with Conor McGregor rather than each country’s current political leader and history.
The UK, until 2018, was number one in the Soft Power-30, a ranking index of countries’ soft power. The rankings are based on “the quality of a country’s political institutions, the extent of their cultural appeal, the strength of their diplomatic network, the global reputation of their higher education system, the attractiveness of their economic model, and a country’s digital engagement with the world.” In 2019 we slipped to number two overall. Brexit, and its perceived negative implications meant we were beaten, albeit narrowly, by the French.
Although Brexit – now done – and the administrative frameworks for the creative industries to operate internationally are in place, the UK must ensure that we remain the best destinations in the world to make movies, record music and host sporting events.
The impact of Covid-19 on the creative and entertainment industries, particularly, remains to be seen. The optimistically anticipated “roaring twenties” will hopefully become reality, but if you took a stroll through any cultural UK hub today, it would be hard to not feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. Previously bustling centres of entertainment and creativity have taken an extended interval.
Business leaders in the sector recently warned they “risk the near-extinction of the arts and culture sector, plus the countless hospitality, leisure, retail and tourism businesses that rely on it, in one of the most culturally rich areas in the world”.
The worst-case scenario, as predicted by the consultancy Arup, estimates a 97 per cent decrease in economic output, which would amount to a total loss of £18.5 billion in gross value added between 2020 and 2024.
Many Conservatives might say that the market will dictate the future of music, art, theatre, film and live events, and this is true. However, as conservatives, surely we should conserve the culture which enriches our society, whether it be the weekly football game, fringe festival or independent film? I believe we will be richer for it in every sense.
The £1.57 billion package approved for the creative industries in the summer of 2020 was rightly welcomed. It is a small sum, when viewed against the backdrop of the industry, which contributed £112 billion to the economy in 2018 and grew two times faster than the rest of the economy between 2010 and 2018. The creative industries are bigger than the UK life sciences, automotive and aerospace sectors combined.
Those in arts and entertainment sectors are growing increasingly worried at the lack of decisive action to implement the best measures to enable a swift recovery, such as an extension of the theatre tax relief scheme, a government-backed insurance scheme for theatre and arts and cultural institutions, an extension of the VAT cut for arts, cultural and hospitality businesses and an extension of business rates relief until at least March 2022.
I believe we can go further. As live venues open, we should offer a similar scheme to “Eat out to Help Out” for live venues – from theatres to music venues to open air performances to lectures.
Seat Out to Help Out would help to solve the immediate need for venues to generate income, while re-establishing longer term community engagement with live venues, museums, cinemas etc. which had already been in decline.
The idea was floated by the Government in September of 2020. Oliver Dowden ordered the civil service to “move at extreme pace” to get the public back into large venues. So far nothing has materialised. Understandably so, given the sharp rise in cases at the end of last year, and the subsequent, world leading vaccine roll out.
As we start to come out of the harshest part of lockdown, the Government can set out a roadmap to reopen and save these precious industries. Reduced prices will encourage attendance, while increasing spending in nearby cafes, restaurants and bars. The scheme could be applied across the UK. Furthermore, after what will be nearly two years of near isolation, incentivising social, in person, activities would raise the national mood too.
Our soft power will be stronger as a result. Just as crises generate brilliant business ideas or scientific discoveries, so too can creative ideas flourish. Just as the post-Brexit, post-Covid environment will encourage entrepreneurs to build the next UK unicorn, we should incentivise the artist, writer or musician to create the next global phenomenon, illuminating the UK as a country to invest in and travel to. The UK can still be the home of the Queen and Olivia Coleman.
I say all this with a large caveat: I am a failed musician. If I look back to my younger self – a struggling singer songwriter looking for a big break – I hope that I speak for at least a portion of those in the arts. It was not a handout I longed for, but an environment which gave me the opportunity to make something of my life, doing something I love.