A Week in Books: If the nation voted with its authors

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The Independent Culture

Britain's two Queens of Crime sit on opposing sides in the House of Lords. Baroness James of Holland Park takes the Conservative whip while Baroness Rendell of Babergh is a working Labour peer.

Britain's two Queens of Crime sit on opposing sides in the House of Lords. Baroness James of Holland Park takes the Conservative whip while Baroness Rendell of Babergh is a working Labour peer. Yet many readers will have found that the novels of P D James expose and expunge the secrets and lies of corrupted institutions just as radically as those of Ruth Rendell. With writers, the political citizen and the creative persona don't have to sing from the same sheet.

So the question of where voters who care about literature should make their mark next week cannot be resolved simply by reference to the private opinions of writers. And the long-term health of writing and reading in Britain surely rests above all on the twin pillars of an effective, inclusive education system and a thriving consumer economy. In those respects, the literary vote has more or less the same interests as the plumbing vote. Which is as it should be.

For what it's worth, my random samplings suggest that, if the nation voted with its authors, we would wake up next Friday to a Liberal Democrat government. However, that party has less to say than its larger rivals on the relevant branches of cultural policy. True, the LibDems promise to end the Arts Council funding freeze, which has closed the door to support for new literature projects. And they reaffirm faith in the British Council and BBC World Service: both, in their way, patrons and promoters of writers.

The book business and its primary producers do face some novel challenges. Any writer (or reader) today should be worrying about the Google scheme to digitise the world's books, and the wider online threat to traditional models of copyright and royalties that this heralds. Both Conservatives and Labour signal action on this front: the former with a commitment to new law "necessary to tackle intellectual property theft", the latter with plans to "modernise" intellectual property rights so as to suit "the digital age".

As for the blocks of bound paper that currently make authors a living (or not), Labour has reconfirmed its pledge to maintain a zero VAT rate for books and newspapers. The Tories have not been so specific, but since any change would mean a/ their submission to Brussels-led "tax harmonisation" and b/ slapping VAT on the Daily Mail too, they just won't go there. With public libraries, Labour brandishes a "modernisation strategy", but one that seems to focus more on IT than on books. The Tories stay library-silent.

They do, though, have some loud things to say about rooting out "political correctness" from arts and Lottery grant decisions. In place of "social policy considerations", they will revert to "peer review" as the basis for funding, while "drastically" reducing arts bureaucracy as part of a grand war on waste. Decoded, this probably means that the board of Covent Garden or the National Gallery can breathe easily while, under the Conservatives, writers on placements in, say, prisons, schools or hospitals ("social policy"; "political correctness") can pack their bags.

Labour's previous bill to outlaw incitement to "religious hatred" mobilised many authors when its ill-drafted clauses raised the spectre of a state-backed assault on free speech. The party manifesto makes very plain its "firm and clear intention" to resurrect such a measure. So, in the absence of smarter legislation, the danger will remain. Freedom-loving literati may thus take some comfort from the Conservative manifesto's robust defence of "traditional liberties". Alas, the Tories then spell out precisely what they mean. It turns out they will offer a free vote on the re-legalisation of "hunting with dogs". If that passes, then at least one vocal pressure group will be looking forward to an unmuzzled future.

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