A True Love of Thine?

Are you goin’ to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt.
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Without no seams nor needlework
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to find me an acre of land
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Between salt water and the sea strands
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to reap it in a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
Then she’ll be a true love of mine…

Following yesterday’s meeting at Arts Council England, we now have the latest news on the government’s cuts to the arts. The riddles they pose are not far removed from the above lyrics.

One fine night in 2009 my eyes met an oddly familiar pair across the smoked salmon sandwiches in the Royal Opera House’s amphitheatre bar during the interval of Tristan und Isolde and I thought, “blimey, that’s the shadow chancellor, at the opera!” With spouses, we had a most civilised chat and I found the Osbornes highly cultured and jolly impressive. The arts, it seemed, were a true love of George’s. But since then he’s got into power which, as we know, changes stuff. The conundrum facing ACE now is just like Scarborough Fair: to prove themselves, they will have to make a cambric shirt with no seams or needlework, or pull an acre of dry land out of the sea.

Here’s the story so far:

The financial year 2011-2012 is to be a transitional phase, with funding cuts more or less across the board of 6.9%. By 2014-15 there will be 14.9% less money available to the RFOs. But everyone will have to reapply for their funding and some may not get it.

The figures are, on the surface, less terrifying than feared. But devils are guzzling away underneath. Here’s where the riddles arrive.

The ACE has to reduce its own budget by 50% to ensure that the arts themselves get enough money. How do you run an organisation with only half its already reduced costs? And Arts & Business, which encourages and facilitates exactly what is needed to plug the gaps – private donations from the business world – is to be slowly axe-murdered by numbers, receiving half its current funding in the year ahead and after that, sod all. How do you encourage private sponsorship yet burn down the bridge needed for the crossing? Parsley, sage… (The ACE says, helpfully, that it will look at “different ways” of encouraging this “key area” of work.) Here is Arts & Business’s own response.

Creativity, Culture and Education also loses half its funding, prompting ‘I-told-you-so’ from those who have been warning that the vital areas of arts education are likely to suffer the most, shooting in both feet the next generation of arts practitioners and consumers. Rosemary and thyme…

More about all this, and ACE’s response, in The Guardian, here. 

The riddles can be carried further when you look at the general approach seeping through the cracks of the CSR. How do you run universities on only 20% of their teaching budget while not just capping the amount they can charge students, but simultaneously making sure that that cap is still so high that it risks pricing ordinary people out of the UK education market and sending those canny enough to have learned a language scurrying to mainland Europe, where they can study somewhere that won’t land them in debt for the rest of their working lives? (See Channel 4’s Young Blogger of the Year for pertinent comment.) Parsley, sage… How do you create a “big society” where we all become volunteers in a land where we already work such long hours that few people still take the necessary minutes to read their children a bed-time story? Rosemary and thyme…

Of course the workings of Britain & Co.Ltd. needs urgent reform, anyone can see that; and given the size of the deficit etc, etc. But reform needs to make sense.

Here are good old Simon & Garfunkel, whose subtext to Scarborough Fair concerns a youth sent into a war in which “Generals order their soldiers to kill, And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.”

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