Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain
Ben Cowell
God help the minister that meddles with art.” So went Lord Melbourne’s warning in 1835, and one of the messages of this book is that governments have continued to misunderstand the role of culture ever since.
Perhaps they always will. Early in Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, the architect Richard Rogers is quoted approvingly as saying that “beauty makes our public servants nervous”, as if administrators are incapable of appreciating the creative process.

Later, Robert Hewison, the author of the book, refers to a new set of cross-departmental objectives handed down by prime minister Gordon Brown in 2008, and complains that not one of them spoke of “truth, beauty, or the power of the sublime”.
Brown may thereby have proved Rogers’ point, but was it ever realistic to hold such lofty aspirations for a fresh round of public service agreements? Hewison seems to think so, adding to the general impression that this is a book “for the few and not the many” (to invert one of the New Labour phrases that get such a ribbing throughout its pages).
Hewison is fond of citing New Labour’s various attempts to quantify the size of the cultural sector, or rather the “creative industries” as they were defined in 1998, at which point they were worth £60bn a year to the economy and accounted for 4% of gross domestic product.

Of the thousands of jobs that owed their existence to the realm of culture, one wonders how many were created simply to pass comment on the endless machinations of government cultural policy.
The value of public value
Hewison can undoubtedly claim possession of one of these. Having achieved a measure of notoriety for his 1980s book The Heritage Industry, Hewison spent the 1990s producing policy reports for the likes of the Heritage Lottery Fund on the topic of “public value”.
I continue to be mystified by what the phrase ever meant. This is despite having waded through the numerous pages of this book that are devoted to this most scintillating of subjects, and despite, too, having been a policy official at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) when the phrase reached its peak in around 2005. (It’s something to do with moving away from an instrumentalist approach to culture and the arts, but let’s not get too distracted.)

Hewison’s book considers the vagaries of cultural policy over past 20 years or so. New Labour takes centre-stage, though its debts to Thatcherism are continually emphasised. The current coalition government is in turn demonstrated as being indebted to New Labour; a near 50% cut in the size of the DCMS is the consequence.
Former prime minister Tony Blair claimed that he had bequeathed a golden age for the arts in his last – and only – speech on the subject in 2007, and Hewison makes much of the contradictions inherent within New Labour’s position on culture. The arm’s length principle was affirmed, while needlessly meddlesome targets were spread “like a child spreads hundreds and thousands on a cake”, in former culture minister James Purnell’s memorable phrase.

New Labour emphasised inclusivity at the same time as official statistics recorded that much cultural activity continued to be a preserve of society’s elites. Successive ministers claimed to be exponents of “arts for art’s sake”, but ran up against Treasury rules that favour investment in enterprises offering a provable and quantifiable return in terms of jobs or social benefit.

No surprises
No one who has had even the most glancing involvement with cultural policy over the past two decades will be surprised to read any of this. Government is a messy business, full of internal contradictions. For the most part, this book is a rather pedestrian account of the comings and goings of ministers, advisers and officials in one of the smallest departments in Whitehall. (Despite the title, the book is almost exclusively English in its concerns.)
It covers all the ground one might expect, from the lottery and the Millennium Dome to Young British Artists and the Olympics. As a former DCMS civil servant, I took some nerdish delight in being reminded of various half-forgotten policy initiatives and green papers of yesteryear.

Yet even I found the whole endeavour intensely dull in places. Even the concluding chapter, a cri de coeur for the civilising idea that governments might promote culture without asking for anything but culture in return, somehow comes across as both depressingly cynical and hopelessly naive. Hewison’s acerbic pen has missed its mark this time.

Ben Cowell is the regional director, East of England, at the National Trust

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