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Cutting our losses

The art lobby has fought hard, and rightly so. But, as the poor prepare to be trampled on, we must keep a sense of perspective

So the arguments are over, and a nation kneels to the blade. O, executioner, do thy duty! But the visual art lobby has scarcely gone down like a helpless Lady Jane Grey. Instead it has fought back with everything it has got, from Mark Wallinger cutting 25% out of The Fighting Temeraire to Sir Nicholas Serota warning of a "blitzkrieg" on the arts.

Whatever the fate of museums and galleries this week, it would do us good to get a sense of proportion. By which I do not mean passively accepting unfair and destructive robbery of the relatively small public budget for the arts. Proportion in this case means seeing the part within the whole, the bigger picture.

It's disturbing how easily the coalition has played a game of divide and rule. Each sector of public-funded Britain has fought its own battle in isolation from the rest. This means that in effect, museums have competed with scientists, theatres with universities. Do I want Britain's museums to stay free and strong? Yes. But not at the expense of the destruction of scientific research or university teaching.

The picture gets bigger yet. The assaults on culture, science and higher education might be seen, in social terms, as attacks on the same "middle class" that howled its horror when the assault on child benefit for the relatively better-off was announced during the Conservative conference. This is where divide and rule gets nasty: not just playing off art against theatre or Serota against the army, but class against class. The real victims of these cuts will be among those who are already among the weakest and most voiceless in our society. Poverty will deepen, remedial benefits will be removed, and Britain will turn the clock back to a neo-Victorian social nightmare. The implications of swingeing treatment of benefit "cheats" and radical cuts to social housing mean more people will be homeless. This is ugly stuff, and the rich men now governing us plainly have no capacity to empathise with lives that are unprivileged.

What is really horrible about this coalition is the unhealthy blend of hardcore Tory instincts to cut and slash with the woolly Liberal heritage of middle class do-gooders. So assaults on the very concept of the welfare state are dressed up in talk of making people less passive, involving us in our society. Cameron's "big society" idea is the woolliest of all. This is why it really is valid to speak of a new Victorian age: it was in Victorian times that the "undeserving poor" were vilified while bountiful Cameronian types administered big society patronage to the deserving, that is deferential, poor. The point about the welfare state is that it got us away from such cant.

In comparison to measures that will increase unemployment while weakening the safety net, remove protection for children in poverty, and bring back the north-south divide with a vengeance, the impact of cuts on the arts will be negligible. Let's face it, art will survive. But people who have never visited a gallery in their lives are going to get trampled on. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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