To describe 2020 as a troubling time for job security would be playing it down to the point of parody. Continued uncertainty around a variety of industries, exacerbated by lockdowns, have put millions of people out of work with many more at risk. ‘The arts’ – a loose term for people who do things that make life worth living for a large proportion of us – has been one of the hardest hit sectors. Historically low margins and scarcity of full-time paid word has always made it a notoriously hard way to make a living. Coronavirus has now sucked any remaining profitability from an already fragile sector. This has caused huge concern from people up and down the country reeling at the prospect of Britain losing its soul.
The government knows this and has, almost since the outset made it clear that the arts will get some help with the announcement of a £1.5bn stimulus package in early July 2020. Many think it does not go far enough especially due to the fact that the bailout is primarily aimed at small venues and cinemas rather than at individuals within the sector. The sad fact seems to be that, although Rishi Sunak has shaken his money tree hoping that some cash will trickle down to the actual performers, it will not be enough. In an interview on 6 October with ITV to address this, he said that people in industries where there is no work may have to retrain: not an outrageous statement in itself but, considering much of the conversation was focused on the arts, it seemed to be an attack on the viability of a wide range of culturally important vocations. An ITV headline the next day claimed that ‘Rishi Sunak suggests musicians and others in the arts should retrain and find other jobs’. This was taken down with a correction following an assurance that the Chancellor was referring to jobs in general but it was plain to see that he was bracing us for hardship in the sector.
Appearing to write off an industry is never a good look, especially one as close to the hearts of the public as theatre and music. When you consider this government has long faced criticism for not offering enough support for the sector, the situation didn’t seem good. It soon got worse. A few days later, on 12 October, a horrendously put-together and laughably thought out campaign appeared. It featured an image of a ballerina emblazoned with the words ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. She just doesn’t know it yet. Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’. The depressing campaign was naturally met with scorn and derision online and it seems unlikely that ballet dancers will be giving up their teachings in a tutu for some training in tech any time soon. The government has been ramping up its efforts to get people into cyber security since 2017 and clearly thought now was the time to poach. The message came across, at best, as misguided.
There was then the unedifying sight of senior politicians trying to put as much daylight between themselves and the campaign as possible. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden described it as ‘crass’. This sentiment was quickly mirrored by a Downing Street spokesperson who attempted to mirror Sunak’s previous comments about the retraining campaign being aimed at people from all areas: “This was part of a campaign encouraging people from all walks of life to think about career in cyber-security, but this piece of content was not appropriate and has been removed.” This raises the question of how this got through committee. Either the government didn’t know about the campaign it was itself putting out or that it did but couldn’t foresee the backlash, considering Mt Sunak’s earlier blip. It’s hard to say which is more alarming.
This isn’t the first time that a conservative government has got in hot water for telling the public how to behave. In September 2020 Home Secretary Priti Patel encouraged people to snitch on their neighbours if they thought they were breaking the rule of six, a suggestion that the Prime Minister was quick to refute. The government has made several PR gaffes since lockdown started: one success has been to keep its abrasive and charmless Home Secretary as far from the mic as possible. This brief lapse proves how wise this policy has been.
Returning to pre-Covid days, if anyone can remember those, back in 2010 David Cameron announced that his ‘passion’ was the so-called big society project. The idea that, particularly during times of hardship (ie austerity), we will need to band together and pitch in with volunteering and community activism to keep things moving. As the government rolled back various ‘non-essential’ services, the plucky general public would step in and pick up the slack. Of course, the idea that you and your neighbours would have to start sweeping the streets because of a financial crash didn’t go down well. The project never got off the ground but managed to leave a bad taste with many who resented the implication that the voluntary sector would pick up the pieces: and, indeed, the implication that the whole idea of doing something for nothing was somehow David Cameron’s idea. (As was proved during lockdown, no such centralised encouragement is needed to foster this kind of effective altruism.)
Let’s rewind still further to 1981 when Norman Tebbit, the Employment Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s first government, gave a famous speech at the Conservative conference. He told the story of when his dad didn’t have a job he got on his bike to find one, suggesting that employment was a short cycle-ride way. Urging tenacity and proactive behaviour to find employment isn’t in itself a bad idea. However, this remark was made at a time of rising social and economic discord when many working-class communities were having their traditional industries decimated by the administration’s policies. For anyone of a certain age, it remains the best-remembered remark he made (and he was far from being a reticent politician). It understandably rattled a few cages at the time. Perhaps that was its intention.
Most people don’t take these suggestions of a change of lifestyle or job at face value. They see a politician – sometimes from a privileged background but always in a position of power – explaining that, while we’re all in it together, it’s you who needs to make the changes and sacrifices. The sad thing being is that many of these messages have nuggets of truth. They are often soundbites which could, with more nuanced handling, have provided useful frameworks for a discussion about how society, or the relationship between society and government, needs to change. Often, however, they are put forward clumsily and in many cases by the wrong people. As such remarks are usually made at the time of actual or imminent hardship, they can seem like finger-wagging lectures about our future conduct. The irony is that all the remarks mentioned have been by politicians from a party which believes in rolling back the state and allowing people to make their own decisions. So, when these people tell you that you haveto change, it jars: and, indeed, risks making all of us – from ballerinas to cyber-spooks – see a compelling argument for not changing anything at all.
• The image at the top of the post was taken from this article in The Guardian published on 13 October 2020.