New Labour and the End of the Welfare State for Artists

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 08, 2021

NME cover March 14, 1998, featuring Tony Blair, headlined Ever Had The Feeling You've Been Cheated? Rock N' Roll Takes on the Government

Most US-centric attempts to imagine a future where artists and humanists’ work is better supported by the government hearkens back to the Works Progress Administration (later, the Work Projects Administration) of the late 1930s and early 1940s. There are, however, more recent models outside the US worth emulating, although their stories often don’t end so well as the WPA’s appears to.

Until the New Labour movement overhauled the British welfare system in the late 1990s, aspiring musicians were often able to exploit loopholes in the welfare system to support their own work. There’s some irony in the fact that the more progressive of the two parties winning control of government effectively ended some of the more progressive social programs that thrived under the conservative regime, although that’s not limited to the UK.

In a recent blog post, David Lance Callahan, who’s writing a book about the intersection of music and the welfare state in the UK, looked at this moment in the late 1990s, when the UK’s music scene went from underground to overground, and the welfare state fell apart:

However, despite these ideological ogres [the Tories] being in power throughout the 1980s and most of the ’90s, their attempts to massage the massive unemployment figures their policies created inadvertently led to an expansion of the opportunities available to find state support for one’s creative endeavours. The ability to get off the dole for a year as part of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme was particularly welcome - if you could get £1,000 put into your bank account for the one day the Department of Social Security demanded to see it there. Often the money was returned to a generous friend or relative the very next day, but the scheme meant that a budding or struggling musician (or manager, record label or sound engineer) could start their own business and be mostly left alone to write, record, tour and promote the results. If you could show some financial or business progress or actual success over that year, then all the better.

This was as true of bands in the ’90s as it was in the previous couple of decades. Very few could have existed without the time and space afforded by signing on and the skin-of-the-teeth security provided by cheap (or free) housing and supplementary benefit - or a non-returnable student grant for art school or uni. Things could only get better with Labour in charge, right?

It feels like on some days it’s easier to imagine how much simpler it could be with debt forgiveness, free or inexpensive higher education, and a universal basic income, and on other days all one can do is imagine how any of those programs, grossly implemented, could be used to tear the existing social safety net (sparse as it is) apart. We have good reason to fear such things! In the 1990s, they happened! It wasn’t a hundred years ago; we remember it ourselves.

Bonus: Callahan’s post includes many clippings of artists from some of your favorite 90s UK bands (Pulp, Belle and Sebastian, Primal Scream, and more) somewhat ambivalently reflecting on their time on welfare and how it enabled them to become successful musicians.

(Via Bethany Klein)