Saturday, January 23, 2016

The beneficence of Google

So - Google has offered £130m to the Chancellor as a token of the tax it owes.  This cosy deal has, rightly, been met with a great deal of scepticism.  An expert at the University of Essex, Prof. Prem Sikka, has estimated that the amount owed is in fact closer to £1.6bn.  But, if you are a huge corporation, it seems that you are taxed on the basis of what you decide to pay, rather than at a rate set by the state.

The response has generally been to say that the deal is absurd, and the amount preposterous.  £130m, people say, will make next to no difference to the deficit, and is a tiny drop in the ocean of government spending.  To pay tax at that level does not in any way reflect the presence that Google has in British society - where it makes 10% of its global revenues.  And yet - £130m is actually rather more than the size of the cut administered by the Chancellor to the Arts Council in 2010.  This was the horrific 30% moment, when the Arts Council's budget was slashed.

The effects of that cut have been immense.  For one thing, the Arts Council has cut administration back so far that it can barely administer grants any more.  The ability to take a genuine interest in the organisations receiving those grants, and to explore the work of those who have not yet received them, has dwindled.  But worse, the arts organisations themselves have been severely limited, and our cultural life has suffered.  I find the programming of the large organisations (except, oddly, the Royal Opera) to be much more conservative and bland than it was five years ago, and the possibility of developing new work or collaborating with communities outside "the mainstream" to be vanishing.  The emphasis in Arts Council application forms is more and more on financial viability and resilience, management and accounting processes - less and less on creativity, imagination, or even experience of making art.

In so far as this government has an arts policy, it is to encourage philanthropy - training arts organisations to solicit money from wealthy individuals.  Kind of like begging - but dressed up by consultants who tell you how to do it well, with champagne and canap├ęs.  This is the American model - and in the States, where there is a well-developed tradition of charitable giving, many people regard such donations as being the equivalent of taxation.  Their donations afford them a tax break (the crucial element Osborne has missed out here), and they talk about their philanthropy as a form of tax that is better, because they are able to decide for themselves where it goes.

And that is the problem.  Everything which this government is doing is calculated to put even more power into the hands of the wealthy.  Why on earth should rich people decide what constitutes artistic quality, and have an exclusive power over the cultural life of a nation?  Isn't it obvious that the effect of this will be to concentrate what money is given into the high-profile large organisations with their development departments, and to push them to pander to the tastes of their funders, which tend to be more for "great art" presented in a traditional, often rather patriotic way, and less for anything that might dare to challenge.   If there were proper taxes - both on wealthier individuals, but more importantly on major corporations - then there would be adequate public funds to spend on things which contribute to the public good - things like health care, education and (yes) culture.  By which I mean an open, inclusive, dynamic and controversial culture. The sort of thing they had in the state-funded, forward-looking societies of Periclean Athens and Shakespearean London.  Or even modern Germany.

It doesn't even need very much.  A derisory offer once a year from Google would put us back where we were under Labour - which now seems like a bit of a golden age.

Saturday, January 02, 2016


The Voladores at the Origins Festival.  Photo: John Cobb.
The year that has just ended was in many ways a very depressing one for anybody involved in intercultural dialogue and progressive politics.  The institutionalised terror of Daesh, particularly as made manifest in the Paris attacks, underlined the total failure of the West to build bridges with the Islamic world.  The response has been simply to escalate the cycle of revenge and confrontation: anyone who seeks to understand why these things are happening is castigated as somehow sympathetic to mass murder.  At the same time, we are witnessing an ever-growing humanitarian crisis, and the British (and European) inability to respond in any but the most narrow-minded and divisive terms is pitiful to behold.  Nicholas Winton, who died in 2015, showed how a civilised society should respond to the spectacle of desperate people fleeing from persecution and death.

The other great crisis, Climate Change, was the subject of yet more self-interest and short-sightedness on the part of the governments of "developed" countries, in the Paris trade agreement that they claimed was an Environmental treaty.  In spite of a huge presence and intense lobbying by indigenous peoples, the voices of cultures with real environmental understanding were entirely ignored, passed over in the interests of capital.  Humanity's failings this year leave me wondering how many more years there will actually be.

And yet, during our work this year, I have time and again felt a renewed optimism and a sense of change in the air.  The Origins Festival during the summer was the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in London ever, with truly extraordinary work on show, and a real feeling that the time had come for these formerly oppressed cultures to reassert themselves in the global space.  The festival embedded itself into the city more deeply than ever before, with entire schools coming off timetable to take part, the British Museum being shaken by the ancient rhythms of Torres Strait dance, and open spaces being regenerated through the healing rituals of the Voladores de Papantla.  The Festival also included the two most important pieces of theatre I saw this year - hopefully I can say that without sounding too arrogant, as we didn't make them ourselves, but curated them!  Oxlajuj B’aqtun, by the Guatemalan Maya company Grupo Sotz'il, was actually about the change in the Mayan calendar, and their sense that a new period of history is slowing coming about, one that will see a more environmentally aware, just, and egalitarian society.  Beautiful One Day, by Australia's Ilbijerri,  placed current cross-cultural tensions into a longer historical perspective, and offered the long view of the Elders as a way of looking not backwards, but into the future.

That same spirit has been informing our Heritage work over the last few months, with the development of our Oral History archive around the indigenous presence in London.  2016 will see our first documentary film, on this same subject.  It's an exciting development in our work that we are collaborating so much with Museums and historians - many of our projects in development are about reclaiming forgotten histories and so re-imagining potential futures.  It's an approach close to the heart of everyone at Border Crossings, including our Patron Peter Sellars, whose talk at Rich Mix was a highlight early in the year.

2015 also saw us developing a new play with Brian Woolland - a sequel to This Flesh is Mine, which had a rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse in the autumn.  Entitled When Nobody Returns, this play will be the Odyssey that follows our Iliad.  After the war, there come the stories of returning soldiers, of displaced people, of broken relationships, of lands occupied and peoples dispossessed.   Our plan is to work with our partners at ASHTAR Theatre in Palestine to present the two plays in rep during 2016 - so look out for an inspiring and important response to all that is happening in, and emanating from the Middle East.

2016 is also Border Crossings' 21st birthday - and there are some very exciting celebrations being planned.  Like all times of trouble - this change of year is also a time of hope.

Happy New Year.