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Getting creative


The end of free movement in Europe, coming on top of the Covid shutdown, has left the UK's creative community reeling. But radical reform in both finance and education policy can get it back on its feet.


Britain’s small fishing ports make great tourist destinations, in which the fishy smells, the colourful nets and lobster pots throw a veil of authenticity over the ice cream stands and nearby beaches. In reality, however, small scale, local fishing is a tiny part of an industry in which the question of what is or is not British becomes hard to discern. British vessels are owned by foreign owners, while quotas allocated to British boats have been sold to foreign companies. The fishy denouement to the Brexit negotiations, therefore, had less to do with iconic fishing ports than with the financial interests of the larger fleet operators.

Little about Brexit is quite what it seems, which is why the culture of fish took centre stage while the culture of creativity was strangely neglected. A story of rugged individuals who survive the elements only to be stymied by Brussels bureaucrats has a resonance that powerful media corporations do not inspire. But while it is true that the creative industries are many times the size of fishing in money terms, those big corporations are the distributors, not the creators, of the work of artists, actors, musicians, directors, photographers, writers, technicians and others who are mostly self-employed and often live a precarious existence.

The Single Market is based upon four freedoms of movement: in goods, services, people and capital. From an EU perspective, these freedoms are indivisible. But because Brexit was so bound up with anti-immigrant sentiment the ending of the free movement of people became a key UK objective. So the other three freedoms were lost at the same time.

The negotiations that went down to the wire at the end of 2020 just about rescued the movement of goods, although now subject to a mass of new paperwork. Capital (aka money) will also tend to find its way to wherever it will make its owner richest. But the movement of services, which make up about 80 per cent of the UK economy and of which the creative industries are a substantial part, are mostly not covered by the exit agreement, while the free movement of people is expressly excluded.

For many who live on their creative skills, the ability to move seamlessly from country to country is of huge importance. Whether it’s a band, orchestra or stage show on tour, a multi-location film in production or a solo musician who plays with groups in different countries, artistic and creative work does not fit easily into national boundaries and the loss of Single Market freedoms through Brexit will make life significantly harder.

The neglect of this sector is a sobering reminder that, while British politicians were focused on headlines, EU negotiators were resolutely focused on commercial advantage. Of goods (including food), we import about £100bn more from the EU than goes the other way every year. Anyone who has tried to buy a UK made washing machine or power tool, or UK-grown tomatoes out of season (or even in season), or who drives a German- (or French-, or Italian- or Czech- or Spanish-) made car will immediately grasp this. So of course we got a tariff-free arrangement for these goods, just as it should be no surprise that UK drivers will continue to be allowed to tour Europe using their UK-issued licences. Britons spend far more money visiting our European neighbours than those neighbours spend visiting us.

The negotiations turned out that way because, for the UK side, Brexit was never an economic strategy, and it came with no coherent plan attached. That’s because many on the Leave side did not anticipate leaving the Single Market. It was only after the vote, when it became obvious we would have to, that the idea of Global Britain was hastily invented. The implication, however, that what was lost to the EU would be more than made up for elsewhere, was clearly nonsense. You don’t sever close links with the world’s biggest trading bloc if you’re betting your future on global trade.

Other strategies, however, are available - strategies that play to Britain’s established strengths in the creative industries while offering a picture of what a sustainably productive economy might look like. How that picture turns out depends very much on how we envisage the world of work in an increasingly mechanised future.

It’s commonly said of wood stoves that they heat you twice - first when you chop and split the logs and then again when you burn them. The most productive work arises in a similar way, giving pleasure both in its production and its subsequent use. And while it would be naive to assume that all creative activity is satisfying, live-enhancing and stress-free, it is clear that any work that allows people to connect with their inner passions while simultaneously giving sustenance to the needs and interests of others is particularly valuable. It is also least likely to be replaceable by machine learning or algorithms.

The field of work that this encompasses is a wide one, from conducting ( or composing) a symphony to designing a video game to handcrafting a bookcase (or a house) to nurturing a garden to preparing a special meal at home for one’s family. All these activities are economic in the sense that they create value, but each is doubly valuable for being motivated by an inner desire rather than an outward necessity.

A government with an inspired vision for the future would look to maximise the opportunities for this sort of work, to unleash people’s creative potential and make the economy truly productive of the sorts of things that enhance the quality of all our lives. This vision requires a complete rethinking of policy objectives, away from a narrow focus on the value of money transactions towards a qualitative evaluation of the usefulness of different categories of work.

It all starts with two things: a new relationship with money - one in which money becomes a facilitator of wealth production rather than its objective - and a new approach to education, in which the creative activities of doing, making, imagining, performing and experiencing take centre stage. In theory, Britain did not need to leave the EU in order to achieve either of these, but so fixated had our politics become on reductive, money-based economic outcomes that only a severe shock was ever likely to edge the door open to these new possibilities. Brexit (augmented by the Covid crisis) has delivered that shock. The question is whether we have the wit and determination to put a foot in the door and start pushing.

In the case of money, the shift needed is away from the focus on ownership and possession in favour of the productive good that people can do with it. It is calculated that in the UK the richest 1% own a quarter of the wealth in money terms. It’s easy to reflect on that in terms of moral outrage, but the significant fact is not how wealthy a few people are but how little real use they make of their enormous riches.

Most of that wealth is sequestered away in land, property, company shares and other financial instruments, in the hope that they become more valuable over time. While the rich are pointlessly acquiring even greater wealth in this way, most other people are unable to live the fulfilled, productive lives of which they are capable either because they have no access to money or because too much of their energy is taken up in acquiring the money that they need to survive.

The real crime of extreme inequality, therefore, is not plain poverty but the colossal waste of human productivity that arises when people do not have access to the tools, both literal and metaphorical, that will allow them to fulfil their creative potential. That is why a Universal Basic Income is such an exciting idea. It recognises that having enough money to live on frees up people’s time and energy to do creative, productive things.

Education is the other vital ingredient for this alchemy, because it provides the opportunity for self-discovery on which all creativity thrives. That the current school system has been reduced to the scoring of a few functional cognitive skills is arguably the biggest barrier to a dynamic, creative society. Children learn in all sorts of different ways, and those with the greatest creative potential are often the least suited to Ofsted’s formulaic prescriptions.

All people are creative, but Britain’s language, culture and history bestow certain advantages when engaging creatively on a wider stage. Maximising that advantage requires the widest possible participation, which in turn requires a fundamental reform in the way that our financial and educational resources are distributed. If we fail at that, then creative opportunities may be squeezed out of the lives of the majority to become niche activities for a privileged few. If we can manage it, however, we can move on from the setbacks of Brexit and Covid into a virtuous cycle of creation and appreciation in which the UK’s creative sector can truly thrive.

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