London Needs a Real Cultural Revolution

Boris Johnson should spend his second mayoral term reversing Ken Livingstone’s legacy of inverse snobbery and interest group politics

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Defender of the arts: Boris Johnson celebrates the Story of London festival at Hampton Court (PA)

Amid all the cheering and shouting during the recent election for Mayor of London, both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone sought to emphasise the differences between them. Neither of them had much motive in pointing out the extent to which the Livingstonian legacy at City Hall has been left intact.

We have had two Boris Johnsons. There has been the one in his weekly Daily Telegraph column, trenchant in denouncing non-jobs such as Diversity Awareness Co-ordinator. Then there is the other Boris Johnson who, as Mayor of London, retains the services of 11 of them at City Hall. The “equalities policy” devised by Ken Livingstone remains largely in place in the Greater London Authority — the empire over which the Mayor presides and which encompasses policing, the fire brigade, transport in the capital, and much else besides. Some of the previous regime’s cronies have walked, but many others, perhaps to their surprise, find themselves still in post. Adherence to quotas, interest groups and racial separatism, remain unchallenged as the City Hall orthodoxy. The “stakeholder engagement class” remains in post. This might be described as a waste of money. But it is worse than that. They are the gatekeepers who confer access and legitimacy to chosen groups. I am sure that Boris is a true Conservative who believes in judging people on merit and is privately contemptuous of all the box-ticking papers he finds his desk swamped with. But if so, he has unfinished business. The question is whether Boris will use his second term in office to implement what he believes.

One of Boris’s less commented-upon roles as Mayor is his cultural one. There are festivals in Trafalgar Square and other parts of London, and schemes and funding to promote the arts. Under Livingstone this was politicised. There was no such thing as a music festival: there were anti-racism music festivals, peace music festivals, or gay rights music festivals.

The Rise anti-racism festival cost £500,000; it involved Billy Bragg singing protest songs and pro-Castro leaflets being handed out from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign stall. The content and organisation of mayoral events reflected political patronage. Thus, the self-appointed “community leaders” of the Muslim Council of Britain determined what took place at events with a Muslim theme.

It would be unfair to suggest that in this area nothing has changed. The Rise festival has ceased. Cultural events reflect London as a world city, but the politics has generally been taken out of them. The war on elitism has also ended. Munira Mirza, Boris Johnson’s “mayoral cultural adviser”, now promoted to Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, has criticised the patronising emphasis on making events “user-friendly”. She said: “Too often, it is presumed that young people will only like art that they can immediately relate to. Working-class students may be steered towards popular culture like hip-hop, new media and film, on the basis that they will find older art forms such as opera or ballet irrelevant. There’s been a kind of inverse snobbery about culture. I get the feeling some people would look at Shakespeare and say, that’s a bit too intimidating for working-class people. If we achieve anything, I would like to help all people think that it is also for them, or that the National Gallery, for example, is for them. That it belongs to them.”

Many Conservatives believe that the state should not be involved in the arts. The argument that art subsidies are unnecessary is especially strong in London where tourism, commercial sponsorship, and the sheer teeming mass of affluent and sophisticated humanity surely should mean that the arts can get by without the life support system of City Hall. 

This is not, however, the view of Mirza, nor of her colleague Veronica Wadley, Boris’s appointment as London Chairman of the Arts Council. They vigorously defend government patronage of the arts. Their quarrel with Livingstonian guardianistas is over what should merit support. The Mirza/Wadley pitch is for excellence, for elitism, for the arts being challenging rather than simply accessible. They don’t accept the cultural relativism that all works of art are of equal value. And government involvement, can help to provide access for all. Why should it be assumed, say, that a young black boy living in a council flat does not have the inclination to play the violin or learn Latin? Boris encourages him to do both. 

The No Strings Attached initiative backed by Julian Lloyd Webber encouraged people with unused musical instruments to donate them to be used by children. An annual schools music festival has been launched. The Mayor’s Fund for Young Musicians raises money for music scholarships. The Team London project has included a “Roman Army” of 50 or 60 Latin specialists to teach the subject in state schools as volunteers. These are positive themes that would not have been given priority under a Livingstone mayoralty. The St George’s Day festival has been boosted. A USA Day is held. Our history is celebrated with the Story of London festival. This recently included a Henry VIII lookalike being carried through the centre of London on a rowing boat on Saturday morning as part of a Tudor river pageant to mark the 500th anniversary of the King’s coronation. Actors representing Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, in full regalia, boarded the royal shallop, or pleasure   boat, Jubilant at the Tower of London to travel to Hampton Court Palace.  

Would Livingstone have suggested celebrating the Diamond Jubilee with the pageant along the River Thames?

Yet the tussle with the politically correct element in City Hall continues. The fact there was a Labour government during the first half of Boris’s first term inevitably caused friction over appointments, and also explains some of the outcomes. 

For instance, Ruth Mackenzie, a former Labour special adviser, was appointed Director of the Cultural Olympiad in January 2010 against the wishes of the Mayor. Events planned for its London 2012 Festival include the following taking place at the Hackney Empire on July 8: “Ha Ha Hackney: Homo of Comedy. Gay Extravaganza 2012! Britain’s top LGBT comics pay tribute and celebrate over half a century of Gaiety.” Another evening is headlined “Ha Ha Hackney, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie”. Sometimes it feels as if the Left is stuck in a timewarp of 1980s interest group politics.

As an aside, there is comedy to be had in perusing the Cultural Olympiad’s website.  Did you know that the Olympics has a “Food Vision”? And that since 2008, as part of the Olympiad, “Over 169,000 people have attended more than 8,300 workshops”? The Left loves workshops.   

One survivor from this interest group heyday is Black History Month. This was a Livingstone wheeze dating back to the Greater London Council in 1987.  It is the arrangement where each October many schools set aside chunks of their curriculum for “black history”. Some of its adherents suggest Black History Month should be specifically for black pupils. The way this might be implemented in a classroom shows this does not bear much consideration. Anyway, the notion of compartmentalising history into black and white is absurd. When Christopher Columbus undertook his adventures in the Caribbean islands was he making black history or white history?  William Wilberforce was responsible for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire — the Bill was passed in August 1833, a month after his death. Thirty years later President Lincoln freed the slaves in the United States. But neither Wilberforce or Lincoln are eligible to be taught in “black history”. There is something slightly obnoxious about overemphasising racial differences to schoolchildren, however the subject is taught. In 2010, Boris agreed to spend £1 million on the Black Cultural Archives centre in Lambeth. And the funding from the GLA for Black History Month has been reduced but not scrapped.

Let’s hope that Boris’s second term sees a clearer renunciation of Livingstone’s legacy. Changes in his senior team will be helpful. Looking across City Hall’s brief there are positive signs. For most of his first term, his chief of staff was Sir Simon Milton, a highly capable former leader of Westminster Council with a great ability to run an efficient operation and to grasp the complexities of such matters as housing targets and planning rules. But Milton was cautious about tackling political correctness and the cultural ethos permeating City Hall. 

Following Milton’s sudden death last year the new chief of staff is Sir Edward Lister, former leader of Wandsworth Council. He has a brief to cut the council tax precept by at least 10 per cent and so a clear-out will probably be recognised as a financial imperative even if not primarily an ideological one.

Another change is the departure of Richard Barnes. During the first term he was the Deputy Mayor, charged among other things with equalities policy. The Conservative member of the London Assembly for Ealing and Hillingdon, he lost his seat to Labour in the May elections. While Labour supporters were cheering, the irony is that Barnes had continued their policies. The “Equal Life Chances for All” paper carried a commitment to “eliminating institutional discrimination” which, it added menacingly, includes “unwitting prejudice”. It states that mayoral appointees will “reflect the diversity of London”, and demands “responsible procurement” — code for burdening any business seeking contracts with carrying out race equality assessments and so forth.

Then we had Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse, who helped set up the Metropolitan Police Race and Faith Inquiry. It was chaired by Cindy Butts, formerly a research assistant to a couple of Labour MPs. Her report proposed “designating the Deputy Commissioner as the lead for diversity and chair of the Diversity Board, placing the Directorate of Citizen Focus and Diversity (DCFD) under the Deputy Commissioner’s direct command and increasing the resources and expertise available to DCFD”. She boasted that these demands had been “actioned”. Thus the Met, already groaning with political correctness under Livingstone, had another layer added. I would hope that Stephen Greenhalgh, the new Deputy Mayor for Policing, will take a different approach.

Also departed is Boris’s policy director, Anthony Browne. The difficulty here was that Browne had written a couple of controversial articles in the Spectator on race and immigration. Thus he was rather feeble when it came to taking on the diversity industry in case it embarrassed him by quoting his comments. 

Mentoring ambassador Ray Lewis, health and families adviser Pam Chesters and efficiencies czar Nicholas Griffin, director of environment Kulveer Ranger and volunteering adviser Lizzie Noel are all out, a reminder of Boris’s ruthless side behind his affable persona. If he doesn’t feel the performance is good enough — for instance, in the number of mentors recruited — then he is prepared to replace those in charge.

Munira Mirza has had her brief expanded to cover education. Boris’s team had already begun promoting free schools and academies, and this will continue.  There will be ten “Boris Schools”, secondary state schools converted to academies sponsored by the Mayor, where Latin is taught, competitive sports are practised, and there is strong focus on discipline and academic rigour. So far, two are up and running, both in Enfield, and showing a sharp improvement after just one year. At the Aylward Academy 48 per cent of pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, up from 30 per cent. For the Nightingale Academy, the results were 42 per cent, up from 27 per cent.

So Boris’s first term has seen many proud achievements along with some disappointing compromises with the old order. He has indicated that he will not seek a third term. So even if he suspected (wrongly) that there were electoral advantages to such compromises, that no longer applies. He has a strong team and a central government that is less likely to get in his way. 

Boris could merely modify the Livingstone settlement of a cultural strategy centred on highlighting interest groups and sectional grievances. Or he could dismantle that settlement and lead a cultural renaissance that celebrates excellence and opportunity. Which Boris will emerge on top?