Stephen Hetherington looks at how New Labour’s approach to culture twinned it with economic benefits and social policy
The day Chris Smith took over the Department of National Heritage in July 1997, he declared in a letter to staff that he would place it “at the centre of the country’s economic life and regeneration”, and promptly renamed it the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The following year, a Select Committee examining the objectives of DCMS concluded: “The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is avowedly an economic Department.” This notion of culture as a tool for economic growth then simultaneously appeared as a general instrument of government. Jack McConnell, when Scotland’s First Minister, claimed: “Culture ... can make a difference to our success in tackling poverty, it can make Scotland a healthier place and it has a significant contribution to make towards our economy.”
Only a few years earlier, statements like this would have seemed bizarre. Despite the mercantile logic of the preceding Conservative government it had basically maintained a two-century tradition of “l’art pour l’art” (“for all purpose perverts art”, as Benjamin Constant poorly paraphrased Kant in 1804); and of ‘culture’ meaning art and intellectual works. New Labour’s break with this tradition seemed all the more poignant as there had never before been a government department for culture, and none of its progenitors had ever had such explicit economic ambitions. Smith was not, though, pushing this line just from personal ambition. It was the rhetorical end of a theory of government that went to the heart of New Labour, integral to its ‘Third Way’ social democracy and its theories of social and cultural capital. Art had once become culture, and culture had now become economics.
The root of all this was glimpsed in a speech by Gordon Brown at an economics seminar in September 1994, when he was Shadow Chancellor. The subject was ‘endogenous growth theory’ (EGT), which he described as a “symbiotic relationships between growth and investment in people and infrastructure”. The speech was said to be written by a then-unknown Labour Party researcher, Ed Balls. Two weeks later, Michael Heseltine greatly amused the Conservative Party annual conference with the quip: “So there you have it... Labour’s brand new shining modernist economic dream. But it wasn’t Brown’s. It was Balls’!” The policy was rarely referred to again by name, but its principles remained central to Labour’s economic theories.
EGT maintains that the social and cultural capital created within society is a more powerful engine for economic growth than is described by the algorithms of classical economics. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says of these theories: “Social capital is the product of inherited culture and norms of behaviour. Hence social capital has ‘social’ and ‘capital’ dimensions since it resides in relations rather than individuals.” To have economic force, the individual cannot act alone, but must share thoughts and ideas as much as hard cash across multilayered networks of common interests. Dressed up as moral principles, it is from these ideas that new demands arose for ‘social cohesion’, ‘access’, ‘innovation’, ‘creativity’ and, most importantly for Third Way idealism, ‘equal opportunity’. In various forms, these are the principles elaborated by Robert Putnam, Charles Leadbeater, Richard Florida and others whose work informed New Labour policy of the time. The oddly named sociologist Perri 6 even claimed: “Culture is now the centre of the agenda for government reform, because we now know from findings from a wide range of research that culture is perhaps the most important determinant of a combination of long-run economic success and social cohesion.”
These are also central claims for Tony Blair’s version of the ‘Third Way‘, reliant on forming, as he put it, “a new contract between citizen and state” through cultural change. Once reified, ‘culture’ became part of a general socio-economic programme common to every government department. Its targets were relationships and social structures, not cultural works per se. The Comprehensive Spending Review of 1998 explicitly confirmed that DCMS was to be an instrument for the delivery of government policies. So while ‘culture’ became a central idea in New Labour’s whole project, it had little policy interest in the arts, aesthetics or the intellectual works of humankind that did not further its general socio-economic ambitions.
Ever since Jenny Lee’s White Paper of 1965, ‘A Policy for the Arts’, there has been a tendency for Labour governments to see the arts as a tool of social policy. A few have argued this idea further back to nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Arnold and Coleridge. It is true that Arnold in particular proselytised what he believed to be the socially improving effects of the arts and culture, but their arguments were reliant on the intrinsic qualities of the art works themselves – exactly the missing elements from New Labour’s cultural model.
Chris Smith once argued for the role of culture in both civil society and in ‘economic society’, saying, “Excellence, innovation, regeneration and access may be the main justifying purposes for modern state patronage.” This is not just instrumentalism, as many cultural observers have claimed, this is culture as a description of the ideal state: the social ground on which paradigms of economic modelling could be built, and where each individual operating within a community was now to be a node in a networked micro-economy on which the macro-economy ultimately depended. I’m not sure which is worse; that the arts were subsumed into governmental theorising or that it didn’t work anyway.
Stephen Hetherington is Co-Chairman of HQ Theatres, an academic and a consultant on cultural projects.
This article is a précis of a paper by Stephen Hetherington given at the American Political Science Conference in Chicago April 2010. Contact Stephen directly for a copy of the paper.