The Culture Secretary spoke to Union of Jewish Students' Annual Conference about the importance of diversity and free expression in the world of culture
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Thank you for coming, and thank you for inviting me along today.
It’s always great to see young people getting engaged with the political process.
I vividly remember my own experience of student politics.
Back then I was a little younger.
And a lot hairier…
Who knows, maybe in a few years one of you will be standing here as a member of the Cabinet. After all, I never thought it would happen to me.
I remember when I became an MP four years ago; I was driving home from the count.
And I turned to my wife and said “Laura, did you ever imagine, in your wildest dreams, that one day I would actually be a Member of Parliament?”
And she looked me in the eye and said: “Darling, in my wildest dreams, you don’t feature at all”.
It’s not the only time I’ve been put firmly in my place.
My first ministerial job was Economic Secretary to the Treasury.
And my very first task in that job was to welcome an important Japanese delegation that was visiting Westminster.
I was introduced to them alongside the Permanent Secretary, the department’s most senior civil servant.
But after the translator explained who we were, our guests looked a little confused.
Afterwards I found out that he had translated my job title, “Economic Secretary”, as “Cheap Typist”.
It could have been worse.
The Permanent Secretary was introduced as the “Typist With No Hope Of Promotion”.
Now of course I’m Culture Secretary.
It’s a job that’s nothing if not varied.
On Monday I was watching the Godfather Live at the Royal Albert Hall.
Yesterday I was at the Hawthorns for West Brom against Villa.
This afternoon I’m here with the Union of Jewish Students.
And right after this speech I’ll be off to the X-Factor final.
And that was a pretty quiet week!
The range of events I find myself attending shows the incredible size and scope of this country’s cultural life.
From local theatre groups operating out of church halls to international hits like Doctor Who and Downton, our creative sector really is the envy of the world.
Not so long ago many parents would despair at the thought of their children working on stage or screen.
“You need to get a proper job – be a doctor or a lawyer…”
But today, the creative sector is big business, a serious career choice.
It’s worth more than £70 billion a year to the UK.
That’s something like £8 million an hour.
And the creative industries are growing faster than almost every other part of the economy.
That’s no mean feat when you consider that, overall, we’re already growing faster than any other G8 nation.
I want to support this phenomenally successful sector.
That’s why the Government is creating all kinds of opportunities to develop and nurture our young talent.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of visiting the National Film and Television School.
It’s funded by the taxpayer and has a seriously impressive track record.
But we’re also investing in the grass roots.
For example, we’re spending up to £76 million a year on music hubs in schools.
And in the Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced that post-graduate students aged under 30 will be able to apply for government loans to fund a masters degree.
It’s a move that will help thousands of creative young people access the advanced training they need to build a career in what is an incredibly competitive global industry.
Making sure this kind of support exists is a big part of being Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
But there’s more to my job than pushing the economic case for culture.
Some people think I’m a one-trick pony, that the only thing I understand and appreciate is finance and economics.
And it’s true that I used to work for a couple of international investment banks.
When I became an MP in 2010 I had an odd sensation.
I was the only member of the new intake who was moving into a more popular profession! Then when I took over at DCMS a lot of people thought I wasn’t the right man for the job.
“What does this banker know about culture?” they asked.
At least I think they said “Banker”…
And you know what?
I do appreciate the financial side of things.
But I’m also very much aware of what art and culture is really for.
What it really does.
How it talks to us, and about us, and feeds into our national story.
Art brings us together, it unites us.
It transcends boundaries and creates understanding.
It breaks down barriers and builds up bridges.
And it gives us a unique insight into different cultures and lifestyles, whether they’re right here on our doorstep, or on the other side of the world.
Modern Britain is home to a staggering range of art and culture.
And that’s a reflection of the multi-faceted society in which we live.
I’m not just talking about diversity in the traditional sense – black and white, gay and straight, Muslim and Jew.
That diversity is undoubtedly important, and I’ll come back to it later.
But I’m also talking about the vast, almost unlimited array of ideas and points of view that have always been so intrinsic to British culture.
There’s the old saying that goes, “two Jews, three opinions”.
I think you could say the same of Britons in general.
From the letters page of your local paper to the bar of your local pub, from the trending topics of Twitter to the floor of the House of Commons, we have never been shy about expressing an incredible range of thoughts and opinions.
To borrow your president’s favourite phrase, we are unified, not uniform.
We are British, but we express that Britishness in many different ways.
And the diversity of our daily life is reflected in the diversity of our art.
That’s what art is for, after all. It tells us who we are.
Shows us our strengths and weaknesses.
Celebrates our better natures and shines a light on the darker corners of our lives.
Ultimately it’s about understanding and expressing what it means to be human.
But that cannot happen if art is censored.
Art can stir incredible passions and spark fierce debate.
It has been fuelling our emotions for centuries, millennia even.
And that’s a good thing, a positive thing.
We can all question whether Tracey Emin’s bed is truly a work of artistic genius.
But none of us should be allowed to ban it from a gallery, or tell others that they must not, cannot, see it and decide for themselves.
It sounds obvious, indisputable.
Sadly, not everyone agrees.
This summer, for the first time in the near 70-year history of the Edinburgh Festival, a performance was cancelled because of political pressure and threats of violence.
Dozens of protesters picketed the venue where a play called The City was being staged. Witnesses spoke of demonstrators screaming abuse at children of 12 and 14.
The police said they could not guarantee the safety of the performers or of the audience.
The play didn’t contain offensive material.
It wasn’t inciting hatred, or pushing a political agenda.
It was simply an innovative musical telling an old-fashioned detective story.
The protesters were demanding that it be censored for one reason and one reason only.
The theatre company behind The City had received some funding from the Israeli government.
A month later the Tricycle Theatre, just a few miles from here, announced that the internationally respected UK Jewish Film Festival was no longer welcome.
Because the organisers had accepted a small grant – less than £1,500 – from the Israeli embassy.
Neither grant came with political conditions attached.
Just as when the Arts Council awards funding to UK artists, there were no attempts to dictate content or censor views.
Yet the connection to Israel was enough.
The protesters came out and the shutters came down.
The moment I heard about the Tricycle ban I knew I couldn’t just let it go.
It’s completely unacceptable for a theatre to act in this way, and I didn’t shy away from telling its directors that.
And I’m pleased to say that, after lengthy discussions, the Tricycle and the UK Jewish Film Festival have resolved their differences.
This story, at least, has a happy ending.
But the problem continues elsewhere.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s an increasingly vocal campaign for a full-scale cultural boycott of Israel.
It’s a campaign I have no time for, and there’s a very simple reason why.
Last month I spoke at a conference for newspaper editors.
I was talking about the various attacks on media freedom that we’ve seen recently.
The so-called right to be forgotten, for example.
And the use of anti-terror legislation against journalists.
And I told them that I believe the free press is an absolute concept.
Something you support 100 per cent or not at all.
That you just can’t say “I believe in media freedom, but…”
The same is true of art and culture.
It simply doesn’t make sense to say “I believe in freedom of artistic expression, but…”
Yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing, including from some voices at the National Union of Students.
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only for people whose politics I agree with.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only if it’s not backed by Israel.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but not for Jews.”
Let me be very clear – I don’t believe in artistic and cultural boycotts.
Nor, I’m proud to say, does my party.
As we have said many times, a cultural boycott would achieve nothing. It would be needlessly divisive, and would run counter to the long history of cultural freedom that this country holds dear.
Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg.
Because culture is bigger than politics.
It should rise above what divides us, not be used to create that division.
It should be used to build understanding, not incite hatred.
We don’t have to like an artist.
We don’t have to support them.
We even have every right to peacefully protest against them if we want to.
But silencing artists, denying their freedom of expression?
That is simply wrong.
It was wrong when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti came under siege from members of the Sikh community.
It was wrong when Christian groups tried to drive Jerry Springer The Musical off the stage.
And it’s wrong when Jewish artists are targeted simply because of their connection to Israel. A century ago William Howard Taft called anti-Semitism a “Noxious weed”.
A century later, I don’t want to see that weed taking root in any aspect of British life.
That’s why I will always be proud to stand up and resist calls for boycotts of Israel.
I know that such calls are nothing more than a smokescreen for the oldest hatred.
That’s why I am proud to see the government taking real action against anti-Semites who want to gain a foothold in Britain’s universities.
We’re denying a platform to extremists who would abuse our freedoms in order to sow the seeds of division.
And that’s why I’m proud of the work we’re doing with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
We’re paying for two teenagers from every British school to visit Auschwitz, letting them see for themselves the horrors of the Shoah.
I had the privilege of joining a group of children from my constituency when they visited two years ago.
I’ve read a great deal about the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
And I was extremely moved by the permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.
But nothing can prepare you for the experience of actually being there.
The Prime Minister found that for himself when he visited this week.
I’m sure everyone who goes to Auschwitz is touched by what they see in different ways.
For me, I will never forget the sight of a case filled with thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from those who were murdered.
Mixed in among them there were countless tiny pairs that had clearly been stolen from the feet of children.
As a parent – and as a human being – it’s a sight that will live with me forever.
As the Holocaust Educational Trust says, when we understand where prejudice leads, we can stop it in its tracks.
And doing so is something that’s very close to my heart.
Because I know what it’s like to face prejudice and hatred.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s and looking like I do, it was almost inevitable.
There was one time at school when a classmate called me “Paki” to my face.
I did what any cool, calm, future Cabinet minister would do.
I hit him.
And then he hit me, and I hit him back and things sort of went downhill from there…
About 10 years later I bumped into him at the shops, and he told me he was sorry for what he’d done, which I really appreciated.
And I remember when I left university and first went for a job interview at a major City bank.
Let’s just say the panel made it pretty clear my face wasn’t going to fit in there.
But for everything I experienced, I’ve never tried to hide who I am or where I come from.
I know that my background, my culture, my heritage made me what I am today.
That’s why, at the start of my of party Conference speech earlier this year, I told the audience that I’m proud to be the child of immigrants.
It’s who I am.
It’s what I am.
The same was true of Yehudi Menuhin.
He was born an American and died a British citizen.
But for his whole life he was, of course, Jewish through and through.
I know that his name, Yehudi, is the Hebrew word for “Jew”.
But what I didn’t know until recently was the story of how he came to be called that.
You see, not long before Menuhin was born his parents were out house-hunting together.
I think it might have been in New York.
They thought they’d found the perfect place.
But as they were leaving, the landlady, unaware of their background, cheerily told them that: “You’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews!”
His parents were rightly appalled, though sadly not surprised.
But they were proud people.
They didn’t want to hide in the shadows.
To deny who they were.
To simply ignore the bigotry of others.
So there and then, they decided that their unborn child would be given a name that declared his race and religion to the world.
That’s why, a few months later, they called their first and only son “Yehudi” – “The Jew”.
And as he grew up and toured the globe, probably the greatest violinist of all time, his name proclaimed not just who he was, but what he was.
It shouted it from posters, album covers and programmes around the world.
Celebrating his heritage, not hiding it.
Just as his parents intended.
Fifteen years after Menuhin’s death, his life gives an example we should all be following.
British culture is built on many cultures, many ideas.
And while we should always be proud of our nationality we should never be ashamed of our backgrounds.
Quite the opposite.
We should draw on our experience of life so that we can excel in whatever walk of life we end up in.
Whether it’s as the doctors and lawyers our parents wanted to see, or as leading lights in Britain’s booming creative industries.
That’s true of me as an Asian man just as it should be true of you as Jewish students.
Our history and our traditions make us who we are.
They shape us, they influence us, and in the melting pot of modern Britain they have the potential to create incredible art, literature and music.
The kind of work that reflects who we are and tells the world something about ourselves. The kind of work the rest of the world can only dream of matching.
So by all means disagree about art and culture.
I want you to debate it, discuss it, defend it and decry it.
But whatever you think of an artist’s work, you must never allow them to be silenced by the politics of prejudice.