Last week, the unlikeliest of arguments took place. The participants: the somewhat passé singer James Blunt and Labour’s new culture secretary Chris Bryant. The topic: diversity (or lack thereof) in the British arts sector. Bryant sparked the row when, in his first interview since becoming shadow culture secretary, he addressed the “cultural drought” facing Britain outside of London and the south-east due to a lack of funding. If elected, he said, Labour would work to encourage the arts world to hire from people from a variety of backgrounds. Crossed-words might have been avoided had he not added “I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor for The Theory of Everything], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” referencing the actor and the singer’s privileged backgrounds – Eddie Redmayne was educated at Eton and Blunt at Harrow. Blunt hit back with an open letter to Chris Bryant, accusing the MP of “telling working class people that posh people like me don’t deserve [success], and that we must redress the balance.” Blunt went on to say that Bryant was peddling an “envy-based” agenda which promoted mediocrity in the name of diversity above merit. Chris Bryant replied in a letter of his own saying “I’m delighted you’ve done well for yourself… It is far tougher [to forge a career in the arts] if you come from a poor family where you have to hand over your holiday earnings to help pay the family bills.”

This exchange, at times rather entertaining (Blunt intermittently refers to Bryant with choice phrases such as “classist gimp” and “wazzock”), has highlighted the need for open and frank discussion about the state of the arts in Britain. Bryant is by no means the only one to voice his opinions on the subject, in October, Jenny Sealey, who codirected the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony and is now the Graeae Theatre Company’s artistic director, stated that unless funding to projects such as theAccess to Work scheme – which aims to provide funding to disabled and deaf people to hire support staff such as sign language interpreters in order to carry on working – is maintained, “theatre will go back to being male, pale and stale”.

The fact is, privilege acts on the likelihood of success in both subtle and sure ways

Arts funding is where the boundaries between economics and culture have really clashed in these times of ever increasing austerity. Councils all across England have seen their arts budgets slashed; in a particularly dramatic case the council in Newcastle-upon-Tyne published a draft three-year budget in 2012, which projected a cut to funding for arts organisations of 100% effective from 2015. This would have meant the closing of some of the country’s most respected institutions; The Northern Stage, one of the top ten producing theatres in the country; and Live Theatre, where Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot, learnt his craft). Though the council has gone ahead, cutting its cultural budget completely, effective from April, the arts in the city were saved by a last minute intervention from then Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman who secured £600,000 a year (half the original budget) for a new charitable Culture Investment Fund, to which arts organisations in the city can apply for grants.

While institutions can be saved last minute by politicians, individuals are rarely so lucky. Cuts in arts funding has meant a loss of jobs, as well as a re-evaluation of ambitions for many young actors, directors, playwrights and technicians, who find themselves unable to pursue their craft because of falling wages. Last year, Academy award winner and veritable national treasure Dame Judi Dench lamented the fact that young actors are being squeezed out of the profession, saying “anyone who’s in the theatre gets letters countless times a week asking for help to get through drama school. You can do so much, but you can’t do an endless thing. It is very expensive.” Fellow actor David Morrissey has also spoken out, saying that the arts is increasingly engaging in “an intern culture” in which young graduates are expected to work for free in order to gain experience and valuable contacts within the industry. This was backed up by a recent report commissioned for Art Council England into diversity in the arts, which found that “there are important diversity issues around who is able to volunteer including the use of unpaid internships as a way to gain experience.” Furthermore, the National Centre for Social Research found that higher levels of volunteering were generally associated with lower levels of deprivation, indicating that unpaid internships are the preserve of the moneyed classes

Young artists from privileged backgrouds are given the opportunity to fail

David Morrissey went on to say “if I was starting out now, it would be a lot harder, because my parents could never have supported me through that ‘Is it going to happen?’ period”.

The lack of opportunity to pursue training in a sustainable way is partly due to the demise of repertory theatres due to arts funding cuts. According to Dame Judi, ‘rep’ theatre was “where you went to learn and make your mistakes and watch people who knew how to do it” .

This is where the arguments of James Blunt and others, who think that those with talent will find a way to succeed no matter the circumstances, fail. The fact is that privilege acts on the likelihood of success in both subtle and sure ways. No one will deny that the ever growing ranks of the public school old boys such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Damien Lewis, Dominic West and yes, even James Blunt, have had to work hard for their success; no one is saying that they got record deals or parts in movies because their chums from Eton or Harrow lobbied the big production companies. But young actors and musicians and artists from their background are given the opportunity to fail, to work for little or no money, the time to hone their craft safe in the knowledge that they will not starve. This opportunity is rarely afforded to their working class counterparts, who may have to work 40 hours to make ends meet and then practice their art in the evenings.

Do we really want to have a culture that is increasingly male, pale, and stale?

The tragedy is that the British arts establishment is going backwards in terms of representing the society as a whole as a direct consequence of the economic downturn. Julie Walters, who is from a working class background, recently said that she worried that “the way things are now, there aren’t going to be any working class actors. I look at almost all the up-and-coming names and they’re from the posh schools.”

“Don’t get me wrong … they’re wonderful”, the actress added, “it’s just a shame those working-class kids aren’t coming through. When I started, 30 years ago, it was the complete opposite.”

Unfortunately, this should come as no surprise. In 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that the UK has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world. It found that social mobility in Britain hadn’t changed since the 1970s and in some respects had gotten worse. Walter’s words were echoed by Call the Midwife actor Stephen McGann.

“Sometimes today it feels like we’re going the other way. Opportunities are closing down. If you’re a messy kid from a council estate today, I think the chances of you making it as a successful actor are a lot worse than they were.”

Those in leadership positions within the arts sector share such concerns, with Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, saying that the “thinning of the social spectrum is a real concern”.

The question is: should we care? The answer, emphatically, is yes. This economic exclusion of the poorer sections of society leads to an exclusion of ethnic minorities, who are more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic group. With recent census data showing that British society is becoming more diverse than ever before, it seems odd that the arts, which are meant to reflect society, should go in the opposite direction. Crucially, cutting out of such a significant portion of our society from the arts not only does a disservice to the young artists and performers seeking to join the sector, but us, the consumers of culture as well. How can we get a variety of voices when there is only one group in the room? Do we really want to engage with a culture that is increasingly ‘male, pale, and stale’?

For many of us, the answer is no, and this is echoed by the statistics. In 2013, Arts Council England (ACE) commissioned a report into “equality and diversity within the arts and cultural sector in England”. It found that the percentage of people engaging with the arts (including museums, theatres, galleries and public libraries) at least once a year was just 67.3% for those from a lower socioeconomic group, in contrast over 85% of those from a higher socioeconomic group engaged with the arts. The report also showed that with respect to audiences and participation in the arts the gap between Black and minority ethnic people and white people has widened. Research suggests that one most common reasons that Black and minority ethnic people fail to engage is because of concerns about feeling uncomfortable or out of place. Alienation of minority communities only contributes towards deepening of divisions within society, and disengagement with the arts can have significant impact on the rounded development of children, as well as their subsequent success in all areas of endeavour, including gaining admission into top universities.

Alienation of minorities only contributes towards deepening divides in society

In December 2014, Sir Peter Balzalgette gave what he termed “one of the most important speeches in his capacity as chairman of Arts Council England”, announcing a “fundamental shift” in the organisation’s approach to increasing diversity in the arts world. In his galvanizing speech, he spoke of how much of British culture has been shaped by “those who once stood outside – who have come to Britain from other countries, or those whose perspective and voices have not always been included in the mainstream.” He went on to cite artists who have categorically defied the ‘male, pale, and stale’ stereotype, including Zadie Smith, whose novel White Teeth he said ‘[best] described our society on the cusp of the new millennium’, Steve McQueen, the Turner prize-winning artist whose film _Twelve Years a Slave _was the first film produced and directed by a black filmmaker to win an Oscar for best picture, and Paul Cummins, the disabled artist who created the “extraordinary, elegiac display of ceramic poppies around the Tower of London”. He went to say that the arts world was not “reacting fast enough to changes in society” and needed to reflect immigration as well as the invisible parts of society – the disabled and the elderly, saying “all need to be brought to the conversation”.

His solution to the problem is the ‘Creative Case for Diversity’, a new tougher enforcement of the Equality Actions Plan that legislates for diversity. He said that ACE would be publishing “workforce diversity data for individual national portfolio organisations and major partner museums” from 2015 and threatened that unless the ACE-funded organisations make progress with “the diversity of their programmes, their audiences, their artist and their workforce” that there would be “a reckoning”. In short, their funding would be axed, and the organisations removed from ACE memberships from 2018.

It remains to be seen whether funding cuts (or at least threats of such) can tackle a problem partially created by funding cuts, but from this year big changes are expected to take place. Balzalgette ended by saying “young talent, whatever its background or class will see the kind of work that convinces them that the arts belong to them -and that they have a way in. We can’t give people creative talent. But we can and must give those with talent creative opportunities.” This sentiment at least, we should all be able to agree on.