The Mad-for-it Hatter's Tea Party
by Samuel Jones
Much of it will be familiar: free access to museums, the Gallaghers coming round for tea, Britpop, YBAs, the disillusionment of Damon Albarn, Chris Martin and the rest.
It's the story of politics and culture over the last decade. I've just been chatting to Charlie, here in the office, and he's right - if there's one image that we'll remember in relation to Blair and culture, it's him shaking hands with Noel Gallagher. But what did that really represent? Blair's pledge to culture, or Noel Gallagher welcoming a left-wing government after growing up in Manchester in the 1980s?
Part of the reason why that image is so memorable is that is could be read in many ways - even more so when we know the subsequent history.
The last ten years is also the story of an uncomfortable and never clear relationship between the arts, the creative industries ... and, sometimes, spin. The arts look good, sound good feel good ... ten years down the line, the YBAs are still going down a storm in Beijing ... but, for all the rhetoric, it's never been entirely clear how the much vaunted creative industries and cultural provision actually mesh. It feels right that they do ... but how? That's something we're investigating here at the moment - more of that in a couple of weeks.
That aside, David Sillito's conclusion makes for interesting reading:
'... one thing is certain. The early enthusiasm for talking about transforming our culture and expanding the government's role in it was always going to mean that he was opening up a whole new collection of largely ungovernable things that he would be answerable for.'
That's a really interesting point ... one of the big stories of the past decade has been the scrutiny on how art and politics get on together Much-resented encroachment, or insufficient attention? In effect, the early emphasis on culture, the arts and creativity had the effect of creating a rod for a governmental back. Growing attention has been paid to culture, and that has tested the boundaries of culture and politics.
But it's not all down to Blair & co.. As Sillito points out, the cultural fleld-days of the late 1990s span the Major government as much as the Blair years. The cultural world was changing of its own accord, in part as a response to politics. This ran alongside the growth of the creative industries and the attention that they came to command. What this demonstrates is that culture, creativity, the creative industries ... all those things change just as much as politics. It's not a case of picking up on a vote-winner here, a bit of regeneration there, it should be about shaping policy to respond to big changes that are going on.
One of the key differences between the two political eras (Major/Blair) is the awareness that culture matters - that wasn't always the case in the 1980s and 1990s. By the late 1990s, though, culture was the UK's calling card - people were switched on to it and it became a new space in which support could be won, both through alignment with cultural figures and through greater attention paid to arts policy, albeit sporadically. There is much disagreement about the methods and how consistent those efforts have been (and I'm not going to get into that here), but the relevance of the arts and culture was slap bang up there , from the 'Mad for it Hatter' tea party all those years ago, right through to the legacy speech a month or so back.
The simple reason is that, if there's been one constant over the last decade, it's that we know that people like culture and this, after all, has been a government that's been pretty anxious to please. Efforts made have ranged from the simple alignment with already liked figures, to some genuine successes in the arts and cultural policy (Tate Modern, The Sage Gateshead ... mention should also go to the work of Chris Smith in the early years).
Question is, if we know that the arts and culture matter, and we know that people like it - how come we've still got so much to get right?
One answer is that culture and politics are ever changing and there is no static relationship to get right. Sure, culture absolutely should not be at the behest of government and politics. However, as the above examples illustrate, culture and the arts are very much spaces in which politics are conducted. By politics, I mean small 'p' stuff, the expression of attitudes an opinion. It feels like, for various reasons, we're heading towards a point where all those expressions are going to be very important indeed. In the future, we need policy that responds to this. That shouldn't be about vote-winning and, in part, it requires changing attitudes on the part of government, cultural professionals and the public. Big asks, I know, but something we really need to think about.