The Tortoise Take: A phoney war

Friday 14 May 2021

By their crass undermining of the independence of the cultural sector, ministers are threatening a precious principle of public life – and encouraging polarisation over the nation’s heritage

From Monday, as lockdown restrictions are progressively relaxed, thousands of cultural venues and artistic institutions will open their doors again to the public. Not all that closed during the first wave of the pandemic have survived. Many others will struggle. 

The government deserves credit for establishing the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund which has already awarded grants to more than 5,000 organisations and – in tandem with the furlough and loans schemes – has ensured that many venues that would otherwise have closed for good have not done so. As it reopens by stages in the coming months, the arts sector has a chance to prosper and thrive.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that ministers – and especially Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary – have sullied this achievement by launching a series of crass new assaults in the culture wars that (it is clear) are increasingly central to Boris Johnson’s post-pandemic political strategy. 

To take one particularly egregious example: in February, Sir Charles Dunstone resigned as chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich, in protest at Mr Dowden’s refusal to confirm the reappointment as a trustee of Aminul Hoque, a Bangladeshi-British expert on “decolonising” the academic curriculum. Dr Hoque was universally regarded as conscientious and valued in his contribution to the museums group – which makes Mr Dowden’s veto look very shabby indeed. 

It was also only the latest instance of an alarming pattern of behaviour. In September, Mr Dowden wrote to museums and institutions addressing the question of statues and “other similar objects”. Since the toppling of the effigy of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June last year, there has been a vigorous debate over the fate of monuments and memorials to individuals whose involvement in slavery or imperialism makes them questionable figures to celebrate in the public space.

The government, as it is entitled to do, favours a “retain and explain” approach: namely, that statues and other memorials should, in all but very exceptional circumstances, be left standing; but that explanatory material should be provided to add historical context and a warts-and-all account of the individuals memorialised.

On 12 June 2020, the prime minister tweeted: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”

This is a legitimate position, and one which might attract much public support. But it is also a sweeping generalisation in a debate that – more than most – requires nuance, local knowledge, and accountability to particular communities.

More to the point: it should have remained an argument made by a prime minister speaking his mind. Unfortunately, it has hardened into official  government policy, in a fashion that should alarm all who believe that politicians should not issue instructions about cultural content, local heritage and the way in which creative institutions are managed.

In his September letter, the culture secretary declared that, “I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position.” 

It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this single, deplorable sentence, in which Mr Dowden effectively abolished the very “arm’s length” principle to which he referred – one that, with very occasional lapses, has guided the arts sector in this country for more than 70 years.

To explain: in 1945-6, when John Maynard Keynes was establishing the organisation that became the Arts Council of Great Britain, he regarded it as absolutely essential that a firewall be raised between the political world and the cultural sector. Having witnessed the horrors of culture dictated by totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Keynes’s generation was determined that no such temptation should be available to politicians in the postwar democratic world.

This principle has underpinned funding of cultural institutions of the UK ever since and – for all the tensions between the arts sector and successive governments over the level of public subsidy – ensured that the threat of politicisation has been kept almost entirely at bay. 

Quite rightly, the Museums Association responded by reminding Mr Dowden of its well-established code of ethics which mandates its members to “[e]nsure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.”

But this mandate is now under explicit threat. Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, has declared quite brazenly that he “will not hesitate” to overturn local planning decisions to remove statues and monuments. Last year, Stephen Barclay, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wrote to the nation’s most prominent museums and galleries, urging them to cut the salaries of their chief executives: an outrageous attempt to direct from Whitehall key remuneration decisions taken by such institutions.

The arm’s-length principle, in other words, is being replaced by an icy political grip on the shoulder. And what animates this, self-evidently, is a desire by the government to score cheap and easy points in culture wars that are, to a great extent, confected.

At present, this conflict has been framed as a battle between (on one side) “woke” hipsters who despise this country, its traditions and anything that resembles patriotism; and (on the other) tweedy reactionaries who respond with blimpish fury to the slightest criticism of Churchill or to historical scrutiny of the damaging legacy of Empire.

This polarisation is, of course, turbo-charged by social media and by the respective longing for the limelight of social justice warriors and self-appointed traditionalists. Culture wars yield a political sugar rush and easy headlines. It is all dispiritingly performative and narcissistic.

In truth, however, such confrontations do not do justice to the subtlety, local variety and sheer diversity of modern cultural debate. There is indeed a fine strand of conservative thinking on this subject best represented by the late Sir Roger Scruton who, in 2012, wrote as follows:

“From Burke to Oakeshott our conservative thinkers have been moved by the poetry of their stance, by its appeal to the imagination, and by the echo of ancestral voices in the life and art that surround us. Even today, in our mutilated country, it is the vision of a sacred landscape, settled in endearing ways, and of the texture of daily life and the beauty of simple manners, that win young people to the conservative cause. Our cause is the cause of belonging, founded in a sense of the beauty of given things and of the need to respond to them with gratitude. This is the real reason why conservatives wish to protect our institutions, culture and educational inheritance.”

This vision of what constitutes shared heritage is ill-served by the crude intrusions of today’s Conservative ministers, whose wrecking tactics are quite at odds with Scruton’s description of a shared collective duty to preserve that which is best in our cultural life.

Such a duty is also perfectly compatible with the scholarly inquiries of writers such as David Olusoga and Sathnam Sanghera, who strive to put the legacy of imperialism and racism in proper context, and to ensure that it is (as it should be) central to the history curriculum at school and universities, as well as to the narrative approach adopted by museums and galleries. What they seek is not shrill politicisation or “erasure”, but the kind of adult candour about the past that any confident modern nation should regard as essential rather than some sort of subversive plot.

In their macho posturing, Mr Dowden and his colleagues let themselves down as well as the offices they hold: the culture secretary, in particular, looks like a man who does not believe a word he is saying but wants to prosper in the populist rightwing government of which he has somehow found himself a senior member. There are few things more pitiful than a moderate trying to look like a tough guy.

What matters infinitely more than such playground politics is that the cultural sector should retain due distance from politicians; that there should remain a non-negotiable space between the cut-and-thrust of party politics and ideology on the one hand, and the independence of the cultural world on the other. As the former Tory arts minister, Lord Vaizey, has warned, the government’s present strategy of aggressive over-reach, if it continues,  “will be far more devastating in the long term than a year of terrible closures.”

The cultural sector is much too precious to be the subject of such petty and reckless intrusion. In the year before the pandemic struck, the arts contributed more than £10bn to the UK economy and will be increasingly important to the nation’s global soft power in the post-Brexit era. 

Yet these are secondary reasons to preserve the independence that Keynes fought to protect. A nation’s culture – “the best which has been thought and said”, to quote Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase – is essential to its cohesion, collective imagination and sense of possibility. To subject this shared bequest and present creativity to the dead hand of politics is a terrible act of vandalism.

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