Why is the Welsh Government at war with culture?

January 5, 2024 14 Comments

In December 2023 the Welsh Government published its draft budget for 2024-25, a ‘budget to protect the services which matter most to you’.  As expected, the overall budget is seriously inadequate, thanks to the Westminster Government’s economic incompetence and its determination to impose Austerity Mark II on public services in advance of pre-election tax cuts.  Within its budget, the Welsh Government, again as expected, intends to increase funding on the NHS (and trains) at the expense of other heads of expenditure.  Few people in Wales would want to argue against this priority.  But beyond it, in the sums allocated to non-health areas, lurk some strange decisions.  One of the strangest is the decision to decimate spending on the arts, culture and heritage.

Decimate is the accurate word, if not an understatement.  The minimum reduction is 10%, and those in the heritage sector are much larger.  In reality, the size of these cuts is more than the official figure, since each body is already having to absorb the costs of rampant inflation over the past couple of years.  And the new cuts fall on top of budget reductions in earlier years.  It’s a long time since arts bodies received anything approaching real-terms increases in funding.

Theseus and Procrustes

Like Procrustes, who sawed off the legs of visitors who wouldn’t fit on his bed, the Government seems to have done its calculations on a crude ‘decimation rule’: lop off 10% or so of the recurrent budget of each cultural body.  There are two bodies, though, that are due to suffer a much steeper ‘fines’, reductions of almost 25%: Cadw and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.  Why these two have incurred the special attention of the Government isn’t clear.  It’s true that there’s been mention, including in the recommendations of the independent review of Cadw, of much closer working between the two bodies (presumably code for amalgamation).  But the structural savings from such a union will be small in relation to the money lost.  Deep cuts will be inevitable in the activities of both current organisations.

Two questions need to be asked about these decisions.  What are their effects likely to be?  And what’s the reasoning behind them?

National Museum Cardiff

The first is the easier question to answer.  The effects will be dire.  The Arts Council, the Books Council and Creative Wales (inasmuch as it aims to support the arts) will be able to fund far fewer clients, so that the overall level of activity will decrease substantially.  Theatre and dance companies, visual artists, musicians, voluntary arts groups, publishers and authors – all will suffer, along with those who value what they produce.  The National Museum and National Library, already squeezed of cash over the last decade, will have to reduce still further what they can afford to do, endangering the missions of their Royal Charters.  Cadw has statutory functions that it must perform, like the designation and maintenance of monuments, so other, ‘elective’ activity will diminish or cease altogether (will the Archaeological Trusts come to an end?).  The Royal Commission is in an even worse position, without the ability to generate additional income.  Everywhere, staff and their specialist expertise will disappear, probably never to be replaced, while institutions will be preoccupied by restructuring and cost-cutting at the expense of carrying out their missions.  A downward spiral looks likely.

Castell y Bere (Cadw)

And the end results?  Wales, a country popularly supposed to value its distinctive cultures, will have much of the scaffolding that supports them knocked away.  National and local arts activities will continue to wither.  Our cultural reputation abroad will suffer, as will the experience of visitors to Wales.  Our material heritage will become neglected.  The quality of life of all of us who live in Wales will decline sharply.  Opportunities and confidence among creative people, young and old, will evaporate.

The second question, why the Government is so harsh on culture, is harder.  Its official ‘narrative’ for the budget merely says that

We have radically reshaped our budget so we can focus funding on the services which matter most to you – to invest more in the NHS and to protect the core local government settlement, which in turn funds schools, social services, social care, and other vital everyday services we rely on.

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru

Arts, culture, and heritage are barely mentioned, and not until page 44. There’s one stark statement: ‘In considering how to meet inflationary pressures, culture bodies will need to explore other sources of income.’ In other words, you’re on your own.

But it’s false to imply that there is no alternative to large cuts. 

For one thing, the entire culture budget is infinitesimally small in comparison with most other budget heads.  The money cultural bodies receive would not keep the NHS in Wales going for more than a few hours a year.  In other words, what are huge reductions for the bodies are small change for the NHS or education or local authorities.

Second, alternative policies are available, in the real world.  The Scottish Government, despite facing much the same budget pressures as the Welsh Government, plans to increase its spending on arts and culture.  On 19 December 2023 the Deputy First Minister told the Scottish Parliament:

As the first instalment of delivering the First Minister’s commitment to double arts and culture funding, we will increase funding for culture in 2024-25 by £15.8 million. Restoring funding to Creative Scotland for utilising their reserves this year, and more.

This is only the first step on the route to investing at least £100 million more in arts and culture by 2028-29. And our aim is to increase arts and culture investment in 2025-26 by at least a further £25 million.

The same policies of state investment have been followed for many years in Ireland.  They have played a crucial role in the remarkable flowering of cultural production in the country – think, for example, of the Irish novel and other creative writing – that is the envy of other countries and has promoted Ireland’s status as a dynamic, modern state.

So why is the Welsh Government so anti-culture?  It’s tempting to blame thoughtlessness or indifference.  But I suspect it’s worse than that.  At the centre of government there’s a fatal lack of understanding and lack of vision about the role of culture and the arts in how we live and how we’re seen by people outside Wales.  It would be very surprising, for example, to hear any Welsh First Minister or Finance Minister articulate the kind of vision expressed so strongly by the Scottish Deputy First Minister, in her speech quoted above, to justify increased funding:

Presiding Officer, our aim for opportunity is about more than economic opportunity.  It is also the opportunity for individuals and organisations to realise their potential – and that is especially true of our nation’s culture.

The transformational power of our culture is immense, attracting people from all over the world who want to come here and experience it first-hand.

Anyone who works in the cultural sector in Wales, whose life is enhanced by the arts, or who cares about their social, economic and health benefits, should be deeply worried by a government whose members can’t manage to grasp the critical importance of maintaining and improving state support for cultural bodies and individuals – especially at a time of economic difficulty and hardship. They should rethink their budget priorities before it’s too late.

Comments (14)

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  1. Dafydd Pritchard says:

    Diolch, Andrew. Dyna ddagrau pethau.
    Mae angen i’r sylwadau hyn gael sylw pellach.

  2. Lyndon Jones says:

    Terrific as always, Andrew: thank you so much. I honestly wish you were running the country.

    I think (sadly) that most Welsh politicians would respond to you with the lazy old canard that ‘there are no votes in culture’. That might be true; but there are always votes in economic success stories borne out of culture, as your Irish example proves so emphatically. Sharon Horgan’s current tv ads promoting visits to Ireland show how much can be made of authentic indigenous experiences.

    Obviously Wales cannot trade solely on its past; it has to develop its economy to be fit for the coming century; but with the retreat of heavy industry we do now have opportunities to celebrate and cultivate the amazing environment with which we have been gifted. I hope passionately that our government will appreciate our treasures and nurture them for the good of us all – present and future. Do I vaguely remember something about the wellbeing of future generations??!!

    With best wishes for 2024,

    Lyndon J.

  3. Richard Saville says:

    What an excellent article! Private sector funding for culture and the arts generally is needed in tandem with public funding.

  4. Gwyn Jenkins says:

    Erthygl ardderchog Andrew. Y sefyllfa yn argyfyngus a dwi’n amau a fydd newid y llywodraeth yn Llundain yn gwella’r sefyllfa i raddau helaeth.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Diolch, Gwyn. Fe welais i amcangyfrifon o’r nifer o swyddi fydd yn debygol o gael eu colli, ac maen nhw’n arswydus.

  5. Oliver Fairclough says:

    In my experience, the only Welsh politician to show any real appreciation of the importance of culture, the arts and heritage was Rhodri Morgan, and even that did little for their funding.

    • Jeremy Rye says:

      He came from an intellectual family as can be seen in his brother Prys . There was a high level of conversation around the home kitchen table.

  6. Richard Owen says:

    Erthygl wych iawn, Andrew. Mae’r pwynt am faint yr arian a roddir i’r sector fel canran o holl wariant Llywodraeth Cymru yn un allweddol, rwy’n credu. Byddai dadlau y byddai dileu’r toriad hwn yn amddiffyn cryn nifer o swyddi yn ddadl gref, a hynny heb effeithio fawr ddim ar gyllidebau eraill.

    Pam fod Llywodraeth Cymru mor ddi-hid o werth diwylliant? Mae yna fyd o wahaniaeth rhwng hunanhyder cenedlaethol y Cymry a’r Albanwyr, rwy’n credu, heb son am y Gwyddelod! Plaid unoliaethol yw’r Blaid Lafur, ac mae llawer, er nid y cyfan o bell ffordd, o’u haelodau yn amheus o unrhyw beth a allai gryfhau hunaniaeth Cymru.

  7. Gwir bob gair Andrew. Diolch am rannu.

  8. Anna Page says:

    An excellent article. The Welsh government is being extremely short-sighted. Instead of spending millions on creating new SMs with all the on-going costs that will entail, they should concentrate on our culture and heritage, which will generate revenue and employment in our communities.

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