ARTS : Lottery on the line

The lottery was born of the 1980s culture of celebration. So what is there to celebrate now, asks Anthony Everitt
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The row about the National Lottery is off the point. The Churchill papers are a large (if slightly malodorous) red herring and the film director David Puttnam's call for a widening of good causes is significant more for its destabilising effect than its content. The lottery raises complicated issues and, because so much money is up for grabs, the babble of conflicting interests has become deafening. But fundamentally the story is a simple one, and to tell it we need to begin at the beginning.

In the early 1980s, a culture of celebration was born. Sport, the heritage and the arts became a tool of economic development and urban renewal. Hosting great events such as the Olympics and the World Cup were sure- fire ways of spending a fortune on capital development without taxpayers cutting up rough. The Greater London Council was abolished, but not before politicians of every persuasion noticed how cleverly it had used the arts to gather political support. In 1984 the French committed the equivalent of £800m to doing up the Louvre museum, to general applause in due course, and further millions were spent on the Bastille opera house and other Parisian arts facilities.

In this country, local councils led the way - commissioning art, building new concert halls and generally using the arts for a new marketing wheeze called "city imaging". Glasgow's year as European City of Culture inspired the Arts Council to develop its own copycat scheme. History books were scoured for anniversaries to mark. Then someone noticed the impending millennium - the mother of all anniversaries.

At which point, enter David Mellor and the Ministry of Fun. Having decided to surf the celebration wave, he saw that two things were necessary for success - strong political leadership and pots of money. He could provide the former (in spades), but the Treasury was highly unlikely to cough up the latter. The National Lottery was the ideal solution, for it meant that his new Department of National Heritage would have its own independent money supply. It was an astonishing coup, which the Treasury has neither forgiven nor forgotten.

And then everything started to go wrong. Mellor fell from grace and, to get the lottery legislation through, parliamentary managers had to make a significant compromise. The distributing bodies were not to solicit applications or decide on their own priorities. This was to guarantee fair treatment for all, but it meant that leading from the front was out.

Meanwhile the celebration boom has gone sour. Sheffield lost a fortune on the World Student Games and Birmingham was accused of diverting resources from education to its refurbished city centre. Splendid new arts facilities are felt to do more for the affluent than the poor. So far as can be judged, few are excited by the prospect of a millennium festival. There is a suspicion that lottery funds will favour expensive projects promoted by the great and the good.

The Government has gone too far to be able pull back, but problems are crowding in on every side. The arts do not like the restriction on capital spending, the charities world is worried by the charities board's recently announced priorities, and heritage grants will inevitably benefit the rich from time to time, seeing that they own a good deal of the heritage in the first place. The one hope is that the distributorswill be patient and brave.

The real danger lies with the Millennium Commission, for if it fails to deliver the goods it could pull the whole house down with it. Its philosophy of celebration is already looking out of date and despite public consultation it has garnered few ideas to capture the imagination. Between now and2000 it could have as much as £1.6bn to spend. The stakes are alarmingly high; people in high places are already wondering aloud whether the three culture quangos really need quite so much cash, and vultures friendly to the Treasury are gathering in the hope of rich pickings.

Stephen Dorrell, the National Heritage Secretary and chairman of the Millennium Commission, has no option now but to double the odds. He and his commissioners must do a U-turn. Instead of being responsive and open to all comers, they must decide a clear, simple to explain and exciting policy. In a sense it hardly matters what it is, but the minister must place his personal reputation on the line and sell it for all he is worth.

The lesson of history is that the celebration culture only works when a charismatic leader promotes it. Ask Ken Livingstone or Franois Mitterrand - or David Mellor.