Notebook - Rosie Millard

Blair's government has always been nervous about waving the cultural flag enthusiastically

I am reading a post-election briefing to the minister for culture. A cultural dossier from No 10? Alas, no. It is dated December 1999, and the ministry in question is in New Zealand. Gripping stuff, though. It asks: is the cultural perspective sufficiently recognised by the government? Why use arm's-length arrangements? What is culture?

As culture secretary in the previous government, Tessa Jowell said that "culture is a slippery concept". An appropriate term? Probably not, but then the slippery Blair administration has always been nervous about waving the cultural flag too enthusiastically. Blair turned up for the opening of Tate Modern only when he realised that the gallery was going to be a hell of a lot more successful than that other Lottery-empowered monster on the river - the Dome. It is also unclear what sort of culture the government is happy to subsidise. Jowell said only that it should be "complex" culture, as opposed to entertainment, which doesn't mean very much, given that the terms are interchangeable depending on where you sit in the auditorium.

Which leaves us where, post election? And what of the arm's length issue? The New Zealanders suggest that "it is not appropriate for government to dictate what particular aspects of our cultural expression should be fostered". Over here, however, if you aren't going to install a huge amount of educational back-up and prove that there is access for all, your grant could be in question and your "cultural expression" left very much unfostered. Which hardly upholds the arm's-length rationale behind the Arts Council. To win Lottery or government funding, or any sort of subsidy, arts administrators sweat it out to tick all the boxes required; the Jowell ministry has set the bar, and cultural practitioners must jump over it.

This manner of direct orchestration has led many to hop up and down, and demand the abolition of this and the merging of that. John Birt suggests the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should go, leaving broadcasting and the creative industries to the Department of Trade and Industry, and sport (particularly if London gets the Olympics) to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Others have suggested that the Arts Council should be abolished and its clients directly subsidised by the government. The cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht considers this eminently sensible. "There is no defensible use for it!" he says. "It doesn't stand for the arts. It doesn't act for the arts. It is a waste of space!"

In London, at least, the national institutions - many of which are directly funded anyway - have a clear vision. The Tate empire grows ever more confident; the National Gallery is enjoying, with "Caravaggio", yet another remarkable show. The West End is the envy of its rivals across the world. The National Theatre has harnessed its cultural remit to private enterprise and is offering Shakespeare for a tenner, while underneath London Bridge, its Shunt project welcomes a young, irreverent crowd, dismissing formality, and embracing autopsies and dancing dogs. The Royal Opera has a new policy of more seats for less dosh.

Perhaps the Arts Council should go - not because the ministry has its knee in the back of the creative industries, but because the industries no longer need to shelter under the protection of a cultural champion.

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