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Triumph of the carnivores

CULTURE AND CONSENSUS: England, Art and Politics Since 1940 by Robert Hewison, Methuen pounds 20
WAS it Winston Churchill, Alec Douglas-Home, Margaret Thatcher or John Major who said the following? "Yes, there is still a wonderful, incomparable beauty in Britain, in the sunshine on the hills, the mists adrift the moors, the wind on the downs, the deep peace of the woodlands, the wash of the waves against the white unconquerable cliffs which Hitler never scaled."

Answer: none of them, but Hugh Dalton, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, introducing his budget in 1946. They don't make budget speeches like that any more, and that it came from whom it did (a socialist reformer) when it did (in the embryonic days of the Welfare State) seems surprising, to say the least. We've become so used to this kind of rhetoric - the pastoral-patriotic - being the preserve of the Conservative Party that we forget Labour once had an investment in it, too. One of the fascinations of Robert Hewison's study of "England, art and politics since 1940" (his book's subtitle) is in seeing how different post-war governments, and the various arts ministries in their keeping, have defined what English culture means.

During the Second World War, "Deep England" was a myth to boost morale. Stained-glass windows, parish churches, chalk giants, Arthurian legends, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Elgar: these were what we were fighting to preserve. That the majority of the nation found more entertainment in Hollywood than on Holy Island was beside the point: as well object that the lion and unicorn, our national emblems, were not to be found roaming the realm. The job of the CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, later the Arts Council) was to bring culture to the masses, and if the lumpenproletariat didn't like it they could lump it.

With the election of a Labour government in 1945, national identity changed hands. There was a need for a forward-looking, socialist myth, and the Festival of Britain was conceived in this spirit: instead of the dome of St Paul's above the ruins, the Dome of Discovery; instead of Horizon, Skylon. Unfortunately, the English people still had no say in how their culture was defined. Their rulers may have been gentler, more ruminant and do-gooding - Michael Frayn called them Herbivores - but this was still top- down cultural programming. The approach wasn't so much missionary as maternal: Nanny knows best.

Re-elected late in 1951, the Conservatives cleared the Festival site, and soon had their own triumphant riposte: the Coronation, which with much pomp and ceremony (and at the cost of pounds 1m) inaugurated the new Elizabethan age. The major artistic contribution to the Coronation was Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana, which bored rigid an already stiff audience of white-gloved nobs. Snobbery and philistinism were back, and culture was discussed as if it were medicine (nasty but good for you) or as an elderly patient in need of careful tending. This was the heyday of consensus, and for the rest of the Fifties - despite Suez, the Angry Young Men, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and the New Left - there was a dull, middling, "Butskell"ist quality to English life.

Then came the Sixties, when so much happened that Hewison, like most commentators on the period, is at times forced into breathless listings: Pop Art, the Beatles, the Chatterley trial, IT, Oz, CND, Marshall McLuhan, the Arts Lab, Vietnam. Deep England now meant Union Jacks on shopping bags and Bobby Moore playing in defence: a bright meritocratic moment. At the Arts Council these were the sugar-daddy years, when, as Lord Goodman put it, "almost any artistic experience short of dementia had a chance of receiving some encouragement within our walls".

In the 1970s, Deep England was invoked by the far Right (Enoch Powell and the National Front), parodied by punks and Derek Jarman in his film Jubilee, made innocuous by conservationists and CAMRA. Later, Margaret Thatcher put her oar in, too: during the Falklands crisis, a nation was reborn, and our island race discovered it had a sibling race in the South Atlantic. It was after the Falklands, Hewison argues, that the post-war consensus finally ended and conviction politics began. The carnivores took over, leading us inexorably to the annus horribilis, 1992, and an identity crisis for monarchy and nation, symbolised by the conflagration of Windsor Castle.

Deep England, it seems, is now dead, killed off by theme parks and consumerism. What counts these days is not artistic value but value for money. Artists used to look to the state for subsidy; now the state looks to artists to subsidise the economy, attract investment, bring in foreign business, provide employment, and contribute around 1.28 per cent (the equivalent of the car industry) to the gross national product. More accountable than ever to accountants, arts bodies have to do tricks with figures to prove what good little earners they are.

As commodification has triumphed, the Arts Council has lost what fragile independence it had. Even William Rees-Mogg, when its chairman, joined in the consumerist sloganising: "the arts are to British tourism what the sun is to Spain". Some arts administrators have been better than others, but few have succeeded in resisting intrusion. The "arm's length principle" is still piously invoked, but the arm has long disappeared inside the maw (or up some other orifice) of the beast Mammon.

Cultural history is hard to write, especially when you have to cover a half century during which, as Hewison acknowledges, definitions of culture have themselves changed enormously. It means making risky connections between art and politics. Why is it that structuralism and Thatcherism emerged during the same period of British history, for example? Are they part of the same spirit, is one a reaction to the other, or is there no real link? Hewison sometimes struggles with cause and effect.

But apart from this, and an obsessive preoccupation with the New Left, Hewison does his job well, at times making even the Arts Council seem almost interesting. He ends millennially, depressed by the present but hopeful of a cultural resurgence in 2001 that will wake Deep England from its sleep.