In the summer of 1997, almost by accident, I became responsible for a political campaign which outgrew itself and, in the end, even succeeded in changing government policy in the UK – albeit only peripherally, and then for all the wrong reasons.
In the beginning…
I had been involved with the arts for some years as a writer, a music journalist, the manager of one of Sheffield’s more successful indie bands, and now as an actor-writer with Sheffield’s touring Reflex Theatre company. As an actor, not for the first time, I found myself in an awkward situation, along with most of my fellows. We had received government funding for a production, but there were strings attached. We were to work on the production full-time. The money received could not be used for wages, and we had to eat.
At the same time, the DSS had a rule that those claiming benefits had to be seeking work full-time and should be engaged in no other activity. What we were doing didn’t count as work – it paid no wages.
In other words, to comply with the conditions of the grant given to us by the government, we had to break the rules as laid down by the government through the DSS. In order to obey the rules of the government with the DSS, we had to break the conditions the government had laid upon us in giving us the grant.
This, for emerging artists at the time, was so standard as to be barely worth mentioning, but it was clearly ludicrous. For other activities there were schemes which paid welfare and an additional £10 per week as a reward for initiative, but those in the arts – whose very funding was set up in such a way as to necessitate such a scheme – were excluded from it.
There were other such discontinuities within the system. Through freelance writing I earned occasional money which I always declared. I continued to declare it even after a DSS officer remarked to me “Confidentially, we’d rather you didn’t bother. It’s just more paperwork.”
Meanwhile another friend, who declared royalties for some video projects with which he was involved, royalties paid every three months, was offended when an officer of the DSS remarked “Damn, he’s one of that sort.” When my friend expressed concern at being one of any sort, the officer was quick to placate him. “Nothing personal,” he said. “We just don’t have the right forms to deal with this.”
Clearly, the staff at the DSS were no more enamoured of the rules than the artists in covertly telling them not to bother declaring their earnings. We kept on declaring them, but government regulations weren’t making it easy on anyone, not even those enforcing those regulations and trying to do so fairly.
The discussion document
The UK has always done well out of cultural exports, exports often built upon the efforts of those who have spent time on benefits while developing their art. Yet somehow, for all the obvious contradictions, contradictions even within the law itself which emerging artists had always to deal with, the nonsense went on, year after year, with revision after revision of the rules. Welfare is ever a favourite playground of politicians out to score cheap points to little genuine benefit.
When I wrote the idea for the Artistic Enterprise Scheme as a document, (download here), my intention was to distribute it among friends and associates to get a discussion going. Sheffield had – I hope still has – a strong arts community. In writing it, my expectation was that someone would tell me it was already in hand, campaigns were underway, people were in discussion with the government. Instead, to my surprise, it was greeted as a fresh, original idea. It turned out that if there was to be a campaign I was running it; running it alone and on benefits while trying to work full-time on a theatre production.
At first I was anxious. I was, after all, declaring myself in contravention of the law; then I thought ‘To hell with it’, if they punished me they’d be giving me a platform upon which to demonstrate the contradictions. So it was I started to circulate the document widely, including ministers within the Blair cabinet. At no time, in spite of the publicity that was to follow, was I ever questioned by the DSS – nor, indeed, by anyone else – about my activities. It was pretty much taken as read that artists do this. However, the blind eye turned to it was not so blind, the acceptance never so accepting that a performer such as myself was not at constant risk of being told to go on some scheme or another if he or she wanted to continue to receive benefits, something which could and did wreck such productions with the loss of key personnel. Artists were forever walking on the edge of disaster in that regard. Tacit acceptance was not enough. We needed to be endorsed within the system.
It was a heady year or so. Many people contacted me for copies of the document. The internet was new, and copies had to be printed and distributed by snail mail, further undermining my already meagre resources. However, a buzz was building. I was interviewed first by the Sheffield Telegraph and then, as the buzz grew louder and spread nationally, was invited to write a news item for Dance UK and, most remarkably, was asked to write a guest editorial for The Stage, the foremost publication for the performing arts in the UK. In allowing me to publish my name and address and an appeal for funding, The Stage gave me leeway it had never permitted anyone previously. A British delegate took a copy out for discussion to a UNESCO conference, (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). As the buzz went international, requests for the document began to come in from abroad as others, seeing the same issues in their own systems, decided to use it as a model for campaigns of their own. Endorsements came in from those well-known in the arts, most notably from Richard Elis, (Huw Edwards in EastEnders). These three articles, the Elis endorsement and the distribution list for the document may be downloaded here. However, for all the enthusiasm, funding was not forthcoming. The arts, after all, were not swimming in cash at the emergent level. I was running out of money, and the government was stone silent.
In August 1998, I had the opportunity to go out to Japan for a year, and thence to South America. I decided to take it and abandon the project. I hoped others would pick up on the momentum it had achieved but, in my absence, it died.
In the end…
… it was not entirely without beneficial effect, though that effect left a bitter taste. In the course of campaigning it had come to my attention that a minister’s son was in a band that had made it into the top ten. The minister’s son I didn’t know personally, but I did know some of the other band members and knew them to have been on benefits prior to the band’s success. This was mentioned in a few letters to ministers. I had no desire to start a scandal that may have adversely affected acquaintances, but I suppose the government didn’t want to take the risk.
So it was that the government introduced a scheme. A scheme to permit artists to continue with what they were doing while on benefits and £10 per week. A scheme that acknowledged the enterprise of the emerging artist. A scheme clearly inspired by the document, but for which I was never to be given any credit.
However, it was a scheme that was very restrictive in the artists it helped. Musicians… like the minister’s son. Most specifically, young musicians… like the minister’s son.
I don’t know what happened to the scheme. My best guess is that it died when it no longer covered the backside of a government minister. It is nonetheless gratifying to know that, for as long as the scheme lasted, perhaps thousands of musicians had a hassle-free period thanks to my activities, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
There was little that was radical in the AES document. However, politics is conservative. The fear of headlines in the gutter press stirring up a row make governments slow to take action that needs to be taken – they would rather do nothing. Nothing is without repercussions, while doing something is always risky.
We consequently find ourselves with many a win-win initiative – as I continue to believe the AES to have been – ignored. The more I consider the politics of the UK and elsewhere, the more frequently I see such potential initiatives, all obvious, all ignored.
For now, if things are indeed as they were, (I’m a long time out of the loop and don’t know the current situation), anyone is welcome to pick up on the AES where it left off. I’d like some acknowledgement, of course, for any inspiration it may provide – that’s a year of my life there after all – but, beyond that, make whatever use of it you will. Please contact me and let me know you’re doing it and how it’s coming along.
As for me, in 2014, my intention is to write a far broader manifesto, one more radical than the AES, one which would, indeed, render it redundant. There’s too much win-win out there going begging in too many areas, too many obvious initiatives that need to be taken in implementing change that would be good for the citizenry, good for the economy.
Action is now long overdue.
As and when I start it, the manifesto will be somewhere here, in these pages, growing over time, amending with consultation and new ideas. Feel free to join in the debate when it starts. Hit the Update Alerts button on the right of this page and subscribe. You may have to deal with emails telling you I’ve posted about my cat, my issues with chopsticks and other such trivia before it kicks off. Ignore them. But when the manifesto posts start rolling, get back here.
I’m going to need all the help I can get.