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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The next big thing?

By Norman Lebrecht / October 14, 2002

When Conservatives come together, whether in crisis as they did at this week's conference or at leisure in their country clubs, the one word that never crosses their lips is the c-word. They may debate nice-versus-nasty and dream of Arcadias past but the topic of culture is taboo to Tories, as it is to all adherents of the centre-Right. Gut-instinct tells Tories that the state should not interfere in creative enterprise. Tribal sentiment suggests that the arts are populated by long-haired layabouts whose votes - if they bother to vote at all - swing wholly to the Left.

The Tories have got it wrong on both counts - dangerously wrong. Culture is now a huge earner, overtaking coal, steel and the motor industry. It is also a vital social issue as millions contend with shorter working weeks and long retirements. It cries out for a policy rethink. To ignore culture in the 21st century spells electoral suicide.

To grasp it - as no Conservative since Churchill has done - would strike a telling blow in a tender part where Labour has suddenly become vulnerable. If there is one legacy that Iain Duncan Smith can leave his party, it lies in its appeal to a nation at leisure.

It is easy to see why the Right fears art. "Communists," observed the American poet e.e. cummings, "have damn fine eyes." Luminaries in most modern art-forms - Picasso, Chaplin, Cocteau, Brecht - were either committed socialists or social subversives. Governments of the Left have always held the high ground in arts policy.

Clement Attlee instituted public subsidy, Harold Wilson gave the arts Cabinet status. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton favoured culture as no Republican president has ever done. Australian cinema was reinvented under Labour's Gough Whitlam. Franois Mitterrand erected more cultural monuments than any prim Gaullist.

Parties on the Right had no ideological comeback. The responses available to them were either, a) that public money was being spent inefficiently or, b) that it should not be spent at all. The first never set the world alight; the second, espoused by Margaret Thatcher's economic guru Sir Alan Walters, was a sure-fire vote-loser. Even backwoods Tories concede that heritage ought to receive some public support.

The standard of debate on the Right has been, in my experience, pitiful. Tory ministers I have known simply muddled along - with the exception of David Mellor who had fun settling scores with Covent Garden. A meeting with Tory MPs and policymakers would quickly degenerate into "my constituents want to know why we are throwing millions at the opera house but won't give a penny for Gilbert and Sullivan and amateur dramatics".

Arts-loving Tories kept their passions private. Ken Clarke swung to jazz. Portillo would sneak off to Wagner. Margaret Thatcher herself would summer in Salzburg, paying full price for her concert tickets. No one on the Right could bridge the gulf between private conviction and public commitment.

While encouraging individual bequests to the arts, they refused to provide US-style tax-breaks. Nevertheless, during the Thatcher years an entrepreneurial spirit entered British arts and a new generation of arts chiefs were privately fearful of what Labour might inflict. They were right to be alarmed.

Gordon Brown coughed up an extra £300 million and a tax incentive for private givers, but the price was extortionate. New Labour imposed a link between public subsidy and social justice. To sign on for state benefit, the arts must now pay lip-service to multi-culturalism, education, equal opportunity and a range of objectives that have nothing to do with art.

New Labour routinely appoints party lackeys to cultural chairmanships in much the same way as Italian governments do. It has abolished the principle of artistic independence. The artist who "walks where the breath of the spirit blows him (and) leads the rest of us into fresh pastures" - Maynard Keynes's original vision for arts subsidy - has no place in Blair's Britain.

The new authoritarianism has been received in the arts world with muted hostility and intellectual contempt. New Labour is losing its cultural constituency. The opportunity is there for the Tories to create a libertarian agenda that will win over the cultural industries - but they cannot do it without forging their first coherent policy on culture and the modern state.

It is not as difficult as it might seem. The roots lie in Churchill, who during the nation's darkest hours saw its identity and future role residing in a language that is the envy of the world. Despite American predations, English is the heritage of these islands and theatre is nowhere so superb as here. Investment in English literature, drama and education must be the first plank of any centre-Right policy. Minority cultures and languages must not be allowed to wither, but English is the core our national existence and it has been shabbily neglected by ideologists of the Left.

The second strand must be a plan to simplify subsidy. A merger between the Culture Department, the Arts Council and the various Lottery funds would mightily please the leaders of cultural industries.

Thirdly, the case must be made that investment in heritage will boost tourism and its ancillary services that have been brought to ruin by Blair's townie bias. A massive acquisition fund is needed for galleries and museums; the fallacy of universal free admission may have to be reconsidered.

Finally, the next government will have to get to grips with broadcasting. The BBC's charter comes up for renewal in 2006. While preserving its role to inform and entertain, the BBC and its viewers would benefit from fewer rules to restrict competition with commercial and satellite channels.

An overhaul of the charter may involve abolishing the Board of Governors, or, alternatively, giving them a proper set of teeth to sink into Greg Dyke's rump. Tories must confront sacred cows, and that may involve thinking the unthinkable: breaking up the Corporation into smaller, themed components.

The notion that there are no votes in culture is nonsense. A principled assault on Blair's regimentation of leisure would ring well in city and shire alike. A new vision for the BBC, even a Reithian revision, would bring cheers of approval in bars and living rooms up and down the land where millions complain nightly that, "there's nothing to watch on telly".

Far from being a marginal issue, culture is one of the few policy areas where Conservatives can come together and offer the country real hope for a better future. They neglect it at their peril.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001