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.
When it ended, arts were kicked out of Cabinet in the penny-pinched 1970s and Thatcherite ’80s. Demotion, however, was good for the arts. Sitting below the political eyeline enabled the Arts Council to recover its independence and the arts institutions their vigour.
The return to Cabinet was a by-product of John Major’s election victory in 1992, a result so freakish that it freed the Prime Minister (by his own admission) from normal burdens of long-term planning and party debts. Major asked his major-domo David Mellor what he’d like to do next and the pair cobbled together a Department for National Heritage (DNH), embracing Mellor’s special interests in arts, media and sports. The last two interests conspired five months later to unseat Mellor; for the rest of its existence, the DNH was headed by soporific nonentities.
After Tony Blair’s election in 1997, everything had to be new and improved. The DNH was rebranded DCMS and assigned to the likeable Chris Smith, who was tasked with promoting a shortlived Cool Britannia. Smith and his successors saw to it that the Arts Council did as it was told. Its subjugation was ultimately enforced when a DCMS official, Alan Davey, was shuffled across to become head of Arts Council England by a Labour Secretary of State, James Purnell (both are now brother-executives at the BBC).
Under the Tories—Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller, Sajid Javid—the DCMS has shown a stony face to the arts. The three parts of the hybrid departments have been pulling in different directions, and culture is, by a large margin, the least voteworthy of the three. Its degradation and devaluation have been visible for all to see.
The prompt and public abolition of the DCMS would be the best thing that has happened to the arts since Jennie Lee two-timed Arnold Goodman. Its existence has been oppressive. Leadership in the arts has been tamed. Conformity has replaced challenge. The heads of Covent Garden, the National Gallery, the National Theatre are pale shadows of once-robust predecessors. The Arts Council is a rubber-stamp. What to do with the doomed department? Media—essentially faster broadband and the sale of television franchises—should go to the Department for Industry. Sport and Culture belong in the Department for Education, where their skills can be harnessed to the national curriculum for the purpose of improving young bodies and minds.
The ideal place for the arts is to be as far from government as possible, and as close to the grass roots. The solution is at hand. Scrap the DCMS, liberate the ACE, privatise the South Bank and there’s a good chance we can bring about an overdue cultural renaissance.