This was despite the horrified cries that accompanied the sacking of Norman St John-Stevas as arts minister in 1981. (To be strictly accurate, he was sacked from his position as leader of the House, and then took umbrage, refusing to stay on as arts minister without a seat in cabinet.) It was ‘bad news for anyone who cares for the arts,’ noted Lord Longford in his diary, adding that the man was ‘an aesthete among philistines’.
The outcry that accompanied the departure of St John-Stevas was such that one might justifiably have feared that henceforth all writers would lay down their pens, musicians cast aside their instruments and painters turn despondently away from unfinished canvases. For where now was the point in self-expression if the cabinet were to be open only to barbarians and, more importantly, if government money were no longer to be made freely available to the creative industries?
It could, however, have been much worse for the artistic establishment. Nicholas Ridley was at different times offered the job as arts minister by both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, but turned it down on both occasions; given that his opposition to state involvement in industry was such that he made other Thatcherites look positively interventionist, perhaps the arts got off lightly.
Nonetheless the sense of betrayal in artistic circles was real enough, and the opposition to Thatcherism was, if not quite total, then certainly the majority position. It was strengthened year after year as waves of students left further education to find that unemployment was no respecter of academic qualifications. ‘I had an English degree certificate,’ remembered Giles Smith, ‘which, in the shrivelled job market of the 1980s, was about as useful as a brass-rubbing.’ He pursued instead a rock and roll fantasy, playing with unsuccessful band the Cleaners From Venus, before ultimately finding his calling as a sports journalist.
There had, of course, long been those who had turned their backs on the career paths mapped out for them, but now it seemed almost as though it were becoming the norm, the result of a society that, having relentlessly expanded university provision over three decades, had now abruptly turned about-face and decided not to put a premium on education for its own sake after all. As Leslie Titmuss, the Tory MP created by John Mortimer, put it: ‘I can’t see how reading English is going to be the slightest help to the economy. It’s not going to produce jobs. It’s going to do damn all for the prosperity of the country.’
This was to become a recurrent theme in the fiction of the decade. Gulliver Ashe in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) is similarly affected, despite an Oxford education: ‘Gulliver had gone through the routines of pitying the unemployed and blaming the government. Now he was experiencing the thing itself. Often did he think resentfully, it’s not fair, I’m not the kind of person who is unemployed!’ And, being an Iris Murdoch character, he was overwhelmed by it all: ‘It was just absurd to feel so ashamed, so bedraggled, so useless. He just knew that he was being destroyed by an alien force, sinking into an abyss out of which he would never climb.’
Less elevated was Elvis Simcock in David Nobbs’s television comedy A Bit of a Do (1989), who had studied philosophy at university: ‘I’m registered as a philosopher at the job centre,’ he says hopefully. ‘No luck yet!’ And less elevated still was Eric Catchpole in the comedy-drama Lovejoy (1986), who was unimpressed by getting a job working for the eponymous antique-dealer. ‘I don’t reckon I’m going to fancy this antiques lark,’ he complains, and his father puts him straight: ‘Given the state of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, polytechnic dropouts like you don’t have much choice.’ Others would have been grateful for the opportunity: ‘These days you gotta go to Cambridge just to get a job sweeping the streets,’ despairs a schoolgirl in the series Big Deal (1984).
The feeling of futility was expressed in a letter published in the Guardian in 1981: ‘As a young, unemployed, first-class honours graduate contemplating the amount of “freedom” provided by my weekly £18.50 Giro cheque, I would be very happy to have Mr Benn as prime minister, or even to become part of the Eastern bloc, if this meant I could get a job.’ An editorial in The Times was later to wince at a similar cinematic plotline: ‘the implication in A Letter to Brezhnev is that the teenage heroine would be better off in the Soviet Union than unemployed in Liverpool.’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2010