Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

We all get singed when a quango burns

The decision of politicians in Wales to become overlords of the nation’s arts is a warning to us all

THE GOVERNMENT is taking over direct responsibility for funding the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. From now on these companies will submit their artistic plans directly to the minister. The Arts Council is to be bypassed. “We reckon that since we are paying the piper, it’s high time we called the tune,” announced the Culture Secretary. “We have already announced a bonfire of the quangos. The Arts Council is just the kindling.”

You can imagine the tidal wave of shock and horror that would rip through the cultural establishment if any such statement were to issue from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It would be curtains down at Covent Garden, oboes at dawn in the Royal Festival Hall, hysterics in the wings at the Lyttelton. In short, it would be unthinkable. Governments do not interfere in the arts — except for providing the money, of course.

That, however, is what has happened in Wales, and the absence of tears and recrimination is perhaps the most shocking aspect of it. On November 30 Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, announced a wholescale cull of Welsh quangos, including the Welsh Language Board, the Ancient Monuments Board, the Historic Buildings Council and several health and education organisations. This followed decisions to absorb the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board, both of which are to be incorporated into the Welsh Assembly Government.

It was on the arts, however, that the main bomb dropped. Decisions on funding all the major arts organisations, including Welsh National Opera, the National Orchestra, Clwyd Theatr, the National Theatre of Wales, the principal dance company, and Academy, its main literary body, are to be transferred directly to the Government. Indeed, Mr Morgan made it clear that he would gladly have taken over the Sports and the Arts Council altogether, but because they had responsibility for distributing lottery funds, which remain a Westminster responsibility, he was unable to do so.

A Culture Board would be set up to co-ordinate activities. The outcome, he said, would be “a significant shrinkage of the quango map of Wales . . .” It would bring “clearer democratic accountability for the public money we spend in Wales, and a better service for the people of Wales”. Andrew Davies, the Minister for Economic Development, put it more bluntly. It was he who used the phrase a “bonfire of the quangos”, adding that the Arts Council of Wales would be “the kindling”.

At a stroke, the “arm’s-length principle” that has governed arts funding in Britain since 1942, and which has been adopted by virtually every country in Europe, has gone. First enunciated by John Maynard Keynes, it meant that decisions on how, whether and where to support the arts were taken not by politicians but by experts, on the basis of creative merit alone. It distanced decisions on cultural policy from the State; protected the artist’s freedom of expression; ensured diversity of taste; and was a protection against aggressive lobbying, whether by arts administrators or politicians. Above all, it was a vital ingredient in the independence of culture — the only environment in which it can possibly thrive. Its loss, said the Gulbenkian Foundation recently, “would mean the loss of individual freedom, both for the artists and for us as audiences”.

No one is quite sure why it has happened, and the protest has, thus far, been muted. The Welsh Arts Council has put out a well-reasoned if pained response. Professor Kevin Morgan, of Cardiff University, has written a fierce denunciation, describing it as “a momentous change in the governance of Wales . . . taken in conditions of secrecy more appropriate to a John le Carré novel”. But there has been remarkably little public debate.

Nevertheless, this is an issue that extends well beyond the Welsh borders. Already this week, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has announced a freeze in arts funding in England until 2008. Though she has, in the past, spoken up for independent thinking in the arts, new Labour language — “social inclusion”, “regeneration”, “benchmarking” — peppers all arts documents. In Scotland, a “cultural commission”, set up by the Executive, is examining the whole future of arts funding, and could well recommend changes similar to those adopted in Wales. The bureaucratic grip is tightening on the cultural throat.

It must be loosened. This reform is as damaging as it is insidious. It means that political expediency will take the place of independent decision-making in the arts. It will erode what Keynes called “a communal, civilised life”. And far from improving accountability, it will considerably reduce it.

As for the Welsh Assembly, it should look to its reputation. That these reforms should emerge from the land of Aneurin Bevan, whose wife Jennie Lee was the best Arts Minister we have had since the war, makes it a matter of shame for them, as well as a warning to the rest of us.

author:Magnus Linklater

original source: The Times on line
15 December 2004


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