Blair deflects funding fears with talk of arts ‘transformation’

The arts in Britain have undergone a “spectacular” transformation in the past ten years, the prime minister Tony Blair claimed today, with an arts scene that is now “more confidence, more assertive and alive”.

Speaking at the Tate Modern this morning, Mr Blair said that the government had aided this transformation by a mixture of “funding, arms-length administration and an intelligent framework of regulation”.

However, he acknowledged that politicians could not take full credit for the UK’s rejuvenated arts scene and used his speech to thank those working within the creative industries.

Galleries, museums, theatres and television have all been success stories, he claimed, producing a culture in the UK which “just feels different”.

Mr Blair argued that the arts are of fundamental importance to the country, explaining his pre-1997 pledge to bring the creative industries in from the periphery.

The prime minister claimed that a nation that cares about art is a better and more successful nation, and also more cohesive, with art encouraging people to view things differently and understand where others come from.

Mr Blair said: “The whole process of stimulation through plays, books, films, works of art; the delight in design, in architecture, in crafts: all of this enlarges a country’s capacity to be reflective, interested and bold.

“Dynamism in arts and culture creates dynamism in a nation.”

Government funding for the arts has doubled since 1997, Mr Blair stated, enabling in part the success story that has seen London “become the creative capital of the world”.

Introducing free admission has led to 42 million visits a year to museums and galleries, he added, while the number of people from lower socio-economic groups visiting museums increased by nearly 30 per cent between 2002-03 and 2004-05.

However, the Conservatives argued that Mr Blair can not claim the arts as his legacy. Hugo Swire, shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, accused the government of “robbing” the arts of millions by “raiding” the national lottery, at the same time as increasing bureaucracy for funding.

Mr Swire said: “This speech smacks of desperation from a prime minister more concerned about his legacy than tackling the problems this country faces. Tony Blair is clearly scrabbling around for a positive epitaph for his time in Downing Street, but he is mistaken if he thinks that his record on the arts will be it.

“Gone are the days when Blair could seduce the arts world with ‘Cool Britannia’ and champagne at Number Ten, and this speech won’t hide his real legacy of failure to deliver for the people of Britain.”

Mr Blair was speaking amid concerns that the government plans to cut arts funding. The Liberal Democrats claim Labour’s record on arts funding is now being “eroded” after the Arts Council grant was frozen last year.

Lib Dem culture spokesman Don Foster called on Mr Blair to prove his claim that the arts are a “treasure of this nation” and resist moves by the chancellor to cut funding.

Mr Foster said: “[Gordon] Brown promised to end ‘boom and bust’. Now he may be on the brink of its re-emergence – to the arts budget

“While core cuts will be deeply damaging, a further raid on lottery good causes would signal a double whammy.”