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London's South Bank Centre: "Incoherent" (Opringle)

Five days into the New Year, the Labour Party issued a rapid-response denial to a terrible smear from the Tories. The tweet from Labour's press team read: "p.44 of Tory dossier says Labour will cancel cuts to the arts budget. We won't."

As denials go, that's pretty unequivocal. It says: the Tories punish the arts, we will punish them too. So, what else is new? The only thing remarkable about this cross-party spat is that the arts are being mentioned at all. Mostly, in an election campaign, the arts are raided for star endorsements, then marginalised, trivialised, infantilised and treated as an optional add-on to national life.

While Angela Merkel visits an exhibition of German culture at the British Museum and presidents of France cultivate close relationships with artists and musicians, the British political class confirms at election time (and most others) that it is the most philistine in western Europe.

Ask around Westminster and you'll be told there are no votes to be had in the arts. As a result of this crude reasoning, the arts have been shoved into Whitehall's lowest drawer, the absurdly named Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). If rumours are to be believed, the DCMS will be abolished if the Tories win the election. About time, too. It has done much harm and very little good to the state of British arts.

Fifty years ago this month, a date worth marking with a glass half full, the arts won a seat in Cabinet for the first time. Harold Wilson, remembering his old pal Aneurin Bevan, appointed his widow, Jennie Lee, as minister for the arts, in charge also of creating his pet project, the Open University. Lee was a close ally of the mistrustful Wilson. She was closer still to Arnold Goodman, the octopus-like lawyer who acted as personal solicitor to both Wilson and the opposition leader, Ted Heath. Goodman was also Jennie Lee's lawyer, winding up Bevan's estate and installing her in a flat directly above his own in Ashley Gardens, Westminster. Goodman and Lee dined together at his place every Sunday night. Friends viewed them as lovers, in all senses except the physical, an impediment presented by Goodman's gargantuan girth.

Lee's first appointment as minister for the arts was to make Goodman chairman of the Arts Council. Over the next six years, she convinced Wilson to treble the council's grant. She got the money, Goodman spent it. Seldom has British government seen such bare-faced collusion—unsupervised and uncommented upon since Goodman kept the newspapers in check with frequent writs. Policy and personnel were sorted out over Sunday night supper at Ashley Gardens. The arts became a plaything of power.

Both Lee and Goodman may have had the interest of the arts at heart, but their complicity was injurious to clean government. It fostered sycophancy in the arts and it favoured fudge. The long-running incoherence of London's South Bank is a Lee-Goodman legacy. Likewise, the multiplicity of London orchestras. Likewise, the never-ending wrangles over English National Opera. Goodman was a workhorse who left Jennie with a clear desk. Eventually, she took a senior civil servant to bed. "Don't tell Arnold," she urged friends. Theirs was a Louis XIV court in miniature.

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