Will someone in government please take responsibility?

On my websites, and Twitter, I try to share stories about community art that are honest, but encouraging. Fortunately, the work itself makes that easy. It’s not all good, but so much is that I’ll never run out of material. That intention to combine truth with hope—also expressed in the title of my podcast with Arlene Goldbard, ‘A Culture of Possibility’—is guided by at least two things.

One is simply the experience of working in an under-resourced and under-valued field. Theoretical arguments, hostile critique, negativity itself—even if such things attracted me (they don’t) these intellectual games are luxuries unavailable to the marginalised, like community artists and those with whom they work. People who rely on their own resources know the value of hope, courage, honesty and resilience. It’s all they’ve got.

The other thing is a sense of responsibility. There’s too much darkness and anger in the world, too much despair, too much greed and pride and vanity. I have the privilege of a voice and the means to use it. At the risk of sounding like Spiderman (and more than usually pompous) that privilege brings responsibility. In what I write, in my work, I want people to leave that bit stronger in the face of whatever they have to do.

For these and other, more personal reasons, I deliberately write about what I know, in ways I hope strengthens the work and the people I care about. I keep opinion in check and rarely stray into the field of politics. I’m not needed there.


But, but, but. The risk is that, in times of crisis such as we now face, there is a widening gap between writing about community art and the reality of people’s lives. So I need to say something about politics, not because I’ve anything specially useful to say, or because it would be noticed if I did, but because I want readers to know that I am not ignoring these realities simply to witter on about community art.

It’s not possible to be silent when the British health service warns of a humanitarian crisis caused by spiralling energy and food costs, when millions of my fellow citizens rely on food banks, when businesses close because they cannot pay their bills. For 12 years—for decades in reality—I have watched conservative governments treat the welfare system like a huge Jenga tower, pulling out more and more blocks until the thing teeters on the edge of collapse. Until now, the consequences have been felt by individuals whose experience could be dismissed by those in charge, but the storms of pandemic, war and climate change now threaten the entire structure. That is the meaning of a humanitarian crisis: a systemic failure that puts the health and wellbeing of whole populations in danger.

Is this an exaggeration? Not to the people who run the health service, care homes, social services, businesses and charities shouting fire. Not to the sick or injured waiting for ambulances that don’t come. Not to the people too scared to use the cooker and who can’t imagine what winter will be. They need help, reassurance, solutions. But the people in charge are on holiday or promising ever more glittering Ponzi schemes to a few thousand party members, if they’ll let them run the country. Busy shouting at each other, they are careering towards a cliff edge. None of them has the first idea of what to do. Cosseted with money and servility, they don’t understand what threatens the poor and vulnerable, or the social solidarity on which they depend. Fiddling while Rome burns, arranging deckchairs on the Titanic—choose your metaphor: the result is the same.

There’s an almighty storm coming. Someone in government must take responsibility, now, while there is still a chance to limit the damage.