Cultural capital: creative Britain in the age of New Labour

Posted on June 24, 2015

Robert Hewison is a cultural critic and in his book – Cultural capital,  he turns his sights on what he characterises as the ‘rise and fall of creative Britain’, charting this process from the period when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 and the term ‘Cool Britannia’ was coined, more or less to the present day. It starts out with an introduction entitled ‘the golden age’, but by chapter six it is ‘the age of lead’ and the book is about the New Labour era of cultural policy from the optimism of the late 1990’s to the crisis of funding and policy currently confronting culture in the UK. Unlike his earlier book The heritage industry, this is not about analysing cultural history so much as advancing a case. The argument is that after 20 years in the Thatcherite wilderness, the 1997 Blair Government offered the arts a Faustian pact. In exchange for an increase of £290m in the budget of the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) (whose budget was to pass the £1bn mark by 2001) the cultural sector was expected to deliver government economic and social policy agendas. Much of this was done by redefining the cultural sector as part of the ‘creative industries’ which consisted of commercial enterprises in a range of sectors as diverse as architecture, designer fashion, the art and antiques market, video games and television and radio (but not newspapers). Government spending to support these and about a dozen other sectors, which strangely never included either individual artists (a creative occupation) not the museums sector (a cultural enterprise), was to conform to the Treasury’s Green Book guidelines which required spending impacts to be measured and monetised. This involves trying to measure the value of the experience of visiting say, Salisbury Cathedral, a process now called ‘contingent evaluation’, in other words asking people what they would be prepared to pay for this service, if they weren’t going to a service. Of course the categorisations as well as the bureaucratic forms of management were highly problematic , with as many as half the workforce in the creative industries not doing anything creative and as many creative people working outside the designated industries as within them.
Not surprisingly this Faustian bargain began to fall apart at the seams fairly quickly. Hewison laces some of the more tedious sections of the book describing the various task forces, commissions, reorganizations, policy papers and think-tank reports, with some gossipy insights in to what was a markedly incestuous world. I had no to idea for instance that Tony Blair’s old housemaster at Fettes, Eric Anderson, was appointed Chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund in 1998, nor that the amateur football team formed by James Purnell, a future DCMS Minister (and now Director of Strategy at the BBC) contained no fewer than four future cabinet ministers, a team which, as Hewison puts it ‘typified the laddish style adopted by New Labour’s shock troops, masking fierce ambition with demotic male bonding.’ Tales of back stabbing, hissy fits, back-scratching deals and unexplained ‘resignations’, make what might otherwise be something of a slog through the detail of the twists and turns of government policy under New Labour readable, if not exactly inspiring.
It had to end in tears, and it did. Probably the most spectacular disaster was the Millennium Dome. Fifteen years later it is hard to remember just how much money was wasted on this project, but Hewison lays it all bare and it isn’t a pretty sight. It wasn’t the only one. The Public in West Bromwich is more disturbing, demonstrating the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. In 2001 a quality of life survey named West Bromwich as the second worst place to live in the UK. In terms of crime, unemployment, housing and schools, West Bromwich lacked a future. If New Labour was to make things of quality available ‘to the many not the few’, West Bromwich was the kind of place to start. The DCMS Policy Action Team 10 (there were 18 in all charged with delivering the government’s National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal) had ‘sustaining cultural diversity and using the arts to combat social exclusion and promote community development’ as one of its basic policy aims. The Public – the largest community arts building in Europe would combine commercial areas, theatre and exhibition spaces, catering and a high-tech interactive gallery that would wind through the building. Apparently an ‘iconic’ building would solve the deep structural problems of life in West Bromwich. Despite its own Lottery Panel recommending rejection of the project, the Arts Council pressed ahead. By the time it opened in 2009 costs had risen from a projected £35m to £52.6m. The architects and two successive companies responsible for running the project went bust, the interactive technology didn’t work and after the Arts Council washed its hands of it, the local council found itself with a £30,000 a week bill to keep it open. It finally closed in 2013. Why did this happen? Hewison argues that it was because of the Arts Council’s need to show that it was willing to meet the (non-artistic) policy objectives of New Labour. The distinction he rightly makes is between the Arts Council’s role being to fund the creation of arts and their enjoyment, which may lead to meeting wider economic and social goals and these becoming the policy imperatives, which cannot be its primary aim.
The Lottery, which has become a major source of arts funding had an extraordinary run of failures, arguably because the sheer quantities of money shovelled through it, over £30bn by 2013, was way in excess of the capacity of the sector to absorb. Who now recalls the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, the Earth Centre in Doncaster, or the National Faith Centre in Bradford? All closed. But nonetheless some of the ‘golden age’ was very golden indeed and despite the catalogue of placemen, managerial incompetence and inappropriate targets, the era saw the renewal of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the end of museum charges and the opening of Tate Modern and the Sage, Gateshead. The Olympics too were a triumph and the cultural Olympics saw substantial investment in amongst others, the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, to glorious effect. New Labour’s cultural policy, in foregrounding the social as well as the economic impact of cultural investment, encouraged the arts into schools, prisons and hospitals. While many arts organizations, the William Morris Society amongst them, would have set up outreach and educational programmes whether or not their funders had told them to, the national policy encouraged and sustained its clients in that resolve.
The position has deteriorated under the coalition government. Interviewed last year in the Independent, Hewison lamented the impact of austerity on the role of local government and its support for the arts, ‘ I think we could see the collapse of the cultural infrastructure of the country because local authorities play a key role, they are much closer to the grass roots and it’s often not recognised. The arguments for them are impossible. Most local authorities in two years time will simply have enough money to fulfil their statutory duties and the arts aren’t a statutory obligation.’ Instead the sector has fallen back on the Lottery. ‘The Lottery has had an incredible impact on the arts. But the problem is the Lottery is becoming the funder of first and last resort.’ There are lessons for the William Morris Society in this. Significant core funding is provided by Hammersmith and Fulham council, mainly for the Society’s schools education work. The success of its partnership bid with the Emery Walker Trust to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Arts and Crafts Hammersmith project, provides a very welcome boost for its educational programmes, but also enables it to carry out vital capital and conservation works. However, there is no certainty that either funding stream will be around in five year’s time. Hewison reminds us in his conclusion that cultural capital is not an exclusive commodity that can be traded in the market. It is a public good whose value increases when more people possess it, not fewer. His view is that the sole purpose of public policy should be to enlarge it by making it as freely available as possible to as many people as possible. Morrisians everywhere would subscribe to that. Cultural capital is timely because it reminds us that whoever gets elected in 2015 will have to have a radical rethink of cultural policy, but in doing so it sounds a warning. The neo-liberalism of the past 20 years has brought us a banking crisis, a crisis in public trust in institutions and a cultural crisis. It is not clear that we have a road map out of that crisis.

This article first appeared in the Journal of William Morris Studies Summer 2015