Chris Bailey reviews Robert Hewison’s account of how New Labour’s golden age for the arts turned to lead.
Since 1978 the cultural historian Robert Hewison has produced a series of books which together chronicle the shifts in the relationship between the British state, its art and its people since the Second World War. This same period also spans the life of the Arts Council, its policies and actions providing the mainspring for the recapitulation of the entire period contained in Hewison’s previous book, Culture and Consensus. A constant theme, restated in the final chapter of Culture and Consensus, is Hewison’s belief that public culture can exert a positive influence on the development of a genuinely shared and inclusive national identity. Sometimes cultural and political values clash. In his most combative book to date, The Heritage Industry, Hewison took Thatcherism to task, lampooning the growth of museums as an index of the nation’s decline. This latest book, Cultural Capital, is partly a contribution to the chronicle and partly a critique of an ideology. Cultural Capital has to get along without the acerbic cartoons by Chris Orr that punched home the anti-heritage message of its predecessor, but it also takes a political slogan as a symbol for a complex set of values. The Creative Britain of the sub-title, he argues, epitomises New Labour and the successes and failures of its managerial ways.
Opening his account of Cultural Capital, Hewison quotes the retrospective evocation of a Golden Age for the achievements of Creative Britain in a 2007 speech by Tony Blair. The Age of Lead, as he dubs the aftermath of the 2010 election and its attendant regime of public sector cuts, provides an anticlimax – it was Fool’s Gold all along. As the American literary critic Hayden White argued, it is not just jokes and folk tales that conform to archetypes. Historians, consciously or unconsciously, emplot their narratives in one of four basic stories; romance, tragedy, comedy or satire. The plotting of the tale of Creative Britain as either tragedy or satire depends on whether we see its fall as due to forces beyond human control, and therefore inevitable, or as inherent in being mortal but not beyond our better, more moral, selves to overcome.
Hewison develops his tragic narrative arc with great skill, drawing on a mass of contemporary sources, many of them now little more than broken links somewhere in cyberspace. As one would expect, he is particularly dexterous in filleting the meaning from Arts Council pronouncements and reading the runes in ministerial speeches. The headline stories from the New Labour years may not be news for many readers, but it is instructive to hear them again in their polished form. In one scene Peter Mandelson and Stephen Bayley are at loggerheads over the contents of the Millennium Dome, while in another we see the tragic failure to manage the creation of The Public, a Will Alsop designed venue for West Bromwich. A third scene shows DCMS staff participating in a workshop as part of a Whitehall peer review and selecting a “pale, yellow amoeba” as a likeness for their Ministry. We might have giggled at the time, but now it is poignant to see how this six-stone weakling of a department, always having sand kicked in its face, was actually more like Bridget Jones – anticipating the criticism by turning on itself rather than setting out to persuade other ministries, and especially the Treasury, of the significance of culture in every mainstream debate.
A consistent theme for Hewison is the feebleness of much of our civil service and the non-departmental public bodies through which our money is channelled. According to New Labour the ‘new public management’ was about combining the best of the private sector with the traditional values of the public. Not surprisingly, it is the Arts Council itself that is most closely under inspection, with the mishandling of the creation of a new ‘national’ group of organisations and consequent funding reductions coming in for fierce criticism. Some heroes emerge, such as Liz Forgan at the Heritage Lottery Fund, who toughed out the process of regionalisation, creating structures that supported applications that were diverse in nature and from around the country rather than concentrated in areas of already high heritage expenditure. As a result, every local authority in the country saw some benefit from National Lottery, the proceeds of which are, after all, gained disproportionately from those less likely to engage in the arts and culture.
Hewison concludes that the New Jerusalem promised in 1997 is still, as the story ends in 2013, ‘on the drawing board’
But as we watch the passing show, can we be sure we are laughing and cheering in the right places? In Cultural Capital policies make their first appearance at the centre and are then implemented elsewhere. So automatic is this assumption that decidedly regional phenomena, such as culture-led urban regeneration or community arts, can easily be co-opted as national initiatives. This is undoubtedly the way many a mandarin prefers to see it, and one of the most noteworthy phenomena remarked on by Hewison is the centralising impulse in all aspects of British political life. This is neither a New Labour nor a Conservative foible, but a very deep-seated national pathology which consistently prefers clientilism to equal partnership. As John Prescott recently explained on the Today programme, the surge of support for regional self-determination in the mid-1990s collapsed, not primarily because of a lack of enthusiasm in the regions, but because his Cabinet colleagues set out to destroy the proposal by removing exactly the powers regions would want, and which would challenge Whitehall traditions. In politics, the enemy is often within.
Hewison notes how the conversion of the Regional Arts Boards into branches of the national Arts Council has parallels with other, similar reorganisations prompted by shrinking budgets and tougher performance targets. The terms used for the matching inducement to accept this takeover were redefined constantly over the 70s, 80s and 90s, until finally ‘devolution’ meant nothing more than handing over responsibility for funding arts organisations to a branch of itself. The price for this ‘responsibility’ was paid when the Regional Arts Associations’ direct link with local democracy through local authority representation was severed in 1991 to create the nationally appointed Regional Arts Boards. The RAAs were not perfect, and they did not all enjoy whole-hearted support from local authorities in their regions, but since their removal from the scene, local determination of cultural provision and the capacity for meaningful national planning has progressively been whittled away. This disconnection poses a problem for narrative continuity, making it problematic to overlay the sector’s engagement with local or regional agendas. This leaves no space for culture’s role in the wider European project such as the EU Capital of Culture programme, the deployment of EU structural funds for numerous capital projects and business development, and the highly successful economic role the sector played for the Regional Development Agencies, and the more fragmented but analogous relationship currently being constructed with Local Enterprise Agencies and city-regions. Nations of Britain other than England also complicate matters by having differing relationships with Whitehall and with their own administrations, and as a result they are confined to small, non-speaking parts in the narrative.
All stories must have a beginning and an end, even when the end was just yesterday. Writing more in sorrow than in anger, Hewison concludes that the New Jerusalem promised in 1997 is still, as the story ends in 2013, ‘on the drawing board’. As statisticians and Chancellors of the Exchequer know, where you choose to begin and end your counting counts. What looks like success, given another couple of years’ worth of data, can conversely be portrayed as a dying fall. A last hurrah for Blair’s vision, and the only work of art that is fully explored in Cultural Capital, is the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Hewison rightly emphasises its excellence as art as well as its demonstration of the case for creative education and the creative industries as synergetic components of the economy. As huge an international success as it was, with the 3.3 million likes on YouTube for the full-length video of the ceremony being possibly a record for such events, it comes nowhere close to matching the competition from popular culture. All of the top thirty most viewed YouTube videos, apart from Charlie bit my finger, are pop videos and none have been viewed fewer than 0.5 billion times. Gangnam Style and Justin Bieber stand at 2.2 billion and 1.1 billion apiece. Now that’s popular.
However many the advances and improvements in public perception of and participation in the arts, Hewison concludes that the impact of public support and the accompanying target-setting was negligible. Whatever claims are made, the arts remain ‘for the few, not the many’ and public subsidy is therefore, on grounds of general public benefit, unjustifiable. Using DCMS data from the Taking Part survey, which now provides an adequate time series to illustrate trends, he shows that the country exhibited only a slight increase in appetite for consuming the arts between 2005/6 and 2012/13. An Arts Council England analysis, From indifference to enthusiasm served to further widen the chasm between the ‘voracious’ consumer of the arts and the many who feel ‘detached’ from public culture.
In 2013, when Rebalancing our Cultural Capital was published, another explanation was beginning to be heard. As Hewison accepts, this independent report makes a cogent case for reversing the centrifugal tendency of arts funding. It is tempting to consider that the Taking Part data which, unlike the 2010 Active People are not disaggregated to local level, mask an increasing inequality. Why, according to the latter survey, should two out of every three citizens of a London borough such as Kensington & Chelsea have engaged at least once with the arts in 2009 while, in a largely well-off part of Yorkshire such as York, barely half did? If we in England are not actually two nations – the haves and the have-nots with cultural preferences to match – then the creation of opportunity must play its part. Meanwhile, as the submission to the 2014 Select Committee Enquiry into the work of Arts Council England by Arts Development UK recorded, 35% of local authorities no longer have any arts service at all and 91% of those that still do have one are planning imminent and significant cuts. They have continued to note that their diminished capacity to maintain strategic partnerships is likely to prove the most damaging effect of the current assault on local government.
Looking for evidence of resistance, The Observer recently sent its reporter Charlotte Higgins to see how, in the wake of Newcastle City Council’s decision to cease its direct funding, the arts are managing to survive. On the Quayside she found Live Theatre is on the way to completing its most ambitious property development to date, remedying, if all goes to plan, one of the last derelict sites left by departing industry on the riverside, and injecting another healthy stream of revenue from the bustling pub it already owns. She asked Live’s softly-spoken Chief Executive Jim Beirne whether he was worried that this enterprising tactic might not in some way taint the artistic vision of the company. His, perhaps exasperated, response was, “If we didn’t do this, what the fuck else are we supposed to do?”
But that’s another metahistory altogether.
Chris Bailey is a Visiting Professor at York St John University and a member of the consultancy Arts Interlink.