The Guardian view on the arts white paper: no direction home | Editorial

There is too much gobbledegook and bland generality in Ed Vaizey’s new statement of government policy for arts and culture. It lacks the focus of Jennie Lee’s white paper of 1965

Half a century after the last white paper on the arts, Ed Vaizey, the government’s culture minister, has just published a successor. The white paper of 1965, by the Labour arts minister Jennie Lee, was Britain’s first expression of a national cultural policy. It makes interesting reading now: both for what has been built on her vision, and for what remains undone.

Lee aimed to make the arts available to the many, not just the few, and in all parts of the country. She thought the state had a moral duty to help artists nurture, not squander, their talents. She wrote: “In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as remote from everyday life.” She wanted Britain to be a “gayer and more cultivated country”. And she raised government funding by 30%.

If the language seems dated, it is, at least, recognisably English, and the paper expressed a great deal in its brief 19-page span. This is not, alas, always true of the new white paper. Nor, in 68 pages, does it contain anything as substantive as Lee’s much shorter document. Instead, Mr Vaizey’s contains a compendium of initiatives already announced either in the recent budget or last year’s spending review; and a digest of problems already in the process of being addressed. Despite its baggy extent, it leaves untouched some questions of huge importance to the future health of the arts.

The new Culture White Paper (as it is imaginatively titled) has clearly had close encounters with Whitehall’s policy-gobbledegook generator. Statements in the document vary from the meaninglessly bland to the virtually indecipherable. “Culture has the potential to transform communities,” the paper informs us. “We will push for new cultural partnerships to include a range of national and local partners,” it ringingly suggests. “Technology offers many opportunities to bring our culture to many more people in many different ways,” it exclusively reveals.

There is a great deal of deadening instrumentalisation at work. Though Lee also thought the arts were useful, their virtues were seen to lie in what might broadly be thought of as the spiritual health of the nation (to borrow Lionel Robbins’ phrase from his report on the expansion of higher education in 1963). By contrast, in the new white paper, we have statements such as: “Museums are jewels in our national crown and we want to ensure that they remain so and are as best-placed as they can be to continue supporting our aspirations for access, place-making and soft power.”

The omissions in the new document are glaring. For a white paper that – commendably, as far as it goes – supports the principle of access to the arts from all parts of the community, and rightly points to a worrying lack of black and minority ethnic people working in the arts, it has little apart from platitudes to offer on the role of education. And yet, as the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value pointed out in 2015, there has been a slide in arts teaching in the classroom in recent years. But it is in schools, as Lee pointed out, that the key to bringing art to everyone lies.

Nor is Mr Vaizey honest about the threat to England’s cultural landscape from local authority cutbacks, which have been forced by the reduction in grants from central government. Instead, he promotes the foundation of a “Commercial Academy for Culture to improve and spread commercial expertise in the cultural sectors”. (In a document full of three-letter acronyms, the abbreviation of this body was not emphasised.) Tellingly, the paper also gives barely a mention to the vital role the BBC has to play as a promulgator of the arts and culture, an employer of artists and a driver of growth in the creative industries. The culture white paper is both a missed opportunity and an unworthy successor to Jennie Lee.



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