The nation’s concerns throughout the Covid crisis have been most urgently focused on emergency services. We are all acutely aware of the strain that our frontline health workers have faced and gained new admiration and respect for other vital sectors of our society. Teachers, supermarket workers, delivery services and retailers have all been heroic in their capacity to adapt and serve our communities.
Many of us have also developed a deeper appreciation for other parts of our communities and lives that were perhaps taken for granted until they were taken from us. Central among these have been arts and culture.
The UK’s creative industries, which contribute more than £111 billion to our economy annually and were growing five times faster than the general economy before the pandemic, provide us with so much of the interest and joy that makes life worth living.
This is why we must come together, more than ever, to support the arts. We must revive this beleaguered industry, not only to bring that interest and joy back into our lives, but also to use our national strength in this sector to build a more prosperous future for communities across the four nations of the UK.
One simple yet hugely beneficial step would be finally to right the wrong whereby artists are often not paid in the UK when their work is copied. Every day, writers, designers, musicians and performers’ work is downloaded, used and shared on electronic devices. This breaches their copyright, and they should be treated fairly.
Other countries solved this problem long ago — 44 countries including Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Israel and Morocco — have some mechanism to remunerate fairly artists for the use of their work.
We are proposing a Smart Fund as a partnership between creators, technology companies and government that would manage a levy, taken via manufacturers from the sale of the electronic devices they build, to invest back into communities and the creative industry which produces content used on these devices.
There is evidence that manufacturers in other countries already do this without passing extra cost onto consumers in those territories and creating any new inflationary pressure. We need to find smarter ways of funding the arts that don’t simply rely on the Treasury and taxpayers.
The Smart Fund does just this. It could generate £200 million to £300 million every year to support the UK’s creative sector. In 2018, the schemes in other countries paid out more than £930 million there. This money would go to people and communities all over the country and could drive a cultural renaissance across our nations.
Those who stand to benefit most are left behind communities, and those who do not currently earn enough to get by, or to expand their ambitions.
It is important to point out that this would not be a tax paid by consumers, or indeed by social media companies. A small one-off amount, equivalent to one to three per cent of the price of electronic devices, would be paid by manufacturers into a fund managed by this partnership. Together they would agree how to do this.
In France, they have used revenue for a community fund which has helped artists and performers to keep working through the pandemic. We could use some of the money in a similar way here and support up-and-coming artists and areas which have so far missed out from cultural investment.
Creative projects in places like Gateshead, Belfast, Margate, Powys and Edinburgh have already shown the way.
We know how the arts can drive economic recovery, community cohesion and local pride. Through investment in community projects and directly to the artists themselves, not only can we right the wrong of creators not getting paid for the use of their work, but we can also support, spread and enhance our local cultural heritage.
We must adapt to the challenges and opportunities that new technology brings. We must keep pace with our neighbours overseas. And we must stand up for our world-leading creative industries if we want a rich and exciting future.
Baron Vaizey of Didcot is a former culture minister. Yinka Shonibare was elected a Royal Academician in 2013 and this year will coordinate the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition