WHERE, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, sit the arts? It’s a question that every philistine (and every Tory government minister engaged in their phoney “culture war”) knows how to answer.

The arts in times such as these (indeed in any times) are, they say, an expensive luxury. The only people who would dare to argue that spending on the arts should be a priority are the so-called “chattering classes”. When, earlier this year, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner dared to attend an opera at Glyndebourne, then deputy prime minister Dominic Raab sneered, with undisguised snobbery, that she was a “champagne socialist”.

Never mind that Tory ministers can well afford the opera tickets than they would deny Rayner and everyone else who comes from a similar, working-class background. When the Tories peddle the false dichotomy of “vocational” versus arts education, what they mean is that working-class kids are fit for nothing more than becoming an army of cheap labour for the UK’s service economy.

You don’t need a life-enhancing appreciation of the arts to become a low-skilled service sector worker on minimum wage. Meanwhile, their own children go to private schools that boast well-appointed theatres and music departments where they can access any instrument they choose.

“It was ever thus”, you might say. However, a recent visit to the Czech Republic for a showcase of the nation’s theatre for children and young people came as a timely reminder that the cultural philistinism of the UK establishment is neither typical nor inevitable.

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The showcase was the latest in the excellent series run by the Prague-based Arts And Theatre Institute, which is funded by the Czech Ministry of Culture. The programme introduced its international guests – theatre professionals from countries as diverse as Quebec, Hungary and Finland – to an impressive selection of Czech theatre for young audiences.

More than that, however, it highlighted a set of generally accepted policy priorities regarding culture for young audiences that put the UK – and, it must be said, Scotland – to shame. It is important not to idealise the Czech situation: artists are struggling there, as they are here, and there are calls for national and local governments to do more for the arts.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that policymakers, arts funders and, indeed, the theatre sector here in Scotland could learn a thing or two from the Czechs. For a start, unlike the Czech Republic, Scotland has no dedicated theatre building for children (nor, indeed, do we have anything equivalent to the Arts and Theatre Institute itself).

The MacRobert Arts Centre on the campus of the University of Stirling experimented with a child-centred programme – even creating two performance spaces for young audiences – but, sadly, it foundered. Scotland boasts, in the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (which is staged every spring by the superb producer Imaginate), a world-class performance programme for children and young people.

We have outstanding makers of theatre and performance for children, too. From Catherine Wheels theatre company to Starcatchers, Shona Reppe to Andy Manley, the best Scottish work is deserving of a place on any international stage.

However, we lack a physical infrastructure for children’s theatre. By contrast, during the four days of Czech showcase, I visited two theatres that exist only to serve young audiences.

At the Minor Theatre in Prague, we had the good fortune to watch Za-to-pek!, a wonderfully inventive piece for children aged eight and over, which explored the achievements (and the difficult political history) of the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek. In the small city of Kladno, in Bohemia, we attended another children’s theatre, the Lampion, to see Komodo, a brilliantly interactive piece of storytelling for young children based on the picture book by Czech writer and illustrator Peter Sis.

The striking thing about the Lampion is that it exists in Kladno, a city that has a smaller population than East Kilbride. The theatre’s board wish that money was available for them to create a more versatile performance space (for Komodo, a makeshift theatre-in-the-round had to be constructed on the traditional stage).

YET the very existence of the Lampion speaks to a commitment to children’s theatre within the Czech Republic that we, in Scotland, can only dream of. This is despite that, according to the World Bank, the Czech Republic’s GDP per capita is just 55% of that of the UK.

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In other words, when philistine politicians and commentators opine that we “cannot afford” to support and expand our arts infrastructure – whether that be stepping in to save the recently closed Edinburgh Filmhouse, Edinburgh International Film Festival and Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen, or investing in dedicated theatres for children in Scotland – what they are really saying is that access to the arts is simply not a priority for them.

When you begin from the base of a stronger commitment to children’s access to the arts than we have here in Scotland, you also get a higher level of discussion on culture policy. During the Czech showcase, we were invited to a seminar on the nation’s children’s theatre at which Ludek Horky, chair of the Czech chapter of ASSITEJ (the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People), was a keynote speaker.

Horky expressed the “personal view” that the Czech government should take its lead from other European countries – most notably France – in establishing a statutory right for every child to a certain level of access to artistic events in any given year. For him, far from being a luxury, experiencing the arts should be seen as an essential right for all children.

Such thinking should be embraced by those of us who strive for an independent Scotland with a view to it being a considerably better, more egalitarian, more humane society than the UK we want to leave behind. However, even within the constraints of the devolution agreement, there is no reason why Scotland should not be moving towards the kind of children’s theatre provision that exists in the Czech Republic and the kind of policy model advocated by Horky.