'79-'97: Culture is booming, just don't blow it

The culturati may hate the Tories. Perhaps they have forgotten what Britain was like in 1979.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Tony Blair is a Modern man. We know this because he says he grew up with the Beatles and colour television. The Beatles? They were a popular mop-topped beat combo from Merseyside who, after a string of toe-tapping, chart-topping discs, disbanded in 1970, nine years before Margaret Thatcher came to power. As for colour television, Blair is telling a half-truth; he was 14 before this small communications revolution.

The Beatles' spiritual heirs, Oasis, will barely remember the days before Maggie stormed into No 10. Their television has always been colour, and they have been brought up in a vibrant culture that is already remote from the Britain of 18 years ago. It must be hard for artists, writers, musicians, television producers and architects of Liam and Noel Gallagher's age to imagine just how restricting things were for their predecessors in 1979. When Maggie took over, British culture was still recognisably that, a more-or-less monolithic entity, despite the Beatles, despite punk, held in check by patronising bureaucracies and government agencies, archaic licensing laws and media outlets controlled by old-school (white-collar and blue-collar) oligarchies, themselves battered and occasionally squeezed into uncomfortable corners by powerful trade unions.

Britain was decidely little. Connections with Europe, for artists, for professionals, for the business community were only beginning to open up. A British designer would no more expect to show at the Milan Fair than the youthful Tony Blair would attend a Tory party rally. The Design Council, a creaking body of besuited worthies in search of CBEs and knighthoods, could seriously give one of its once-prestigious "Design Council Approved" labels to the Austin Montego, a car with even less charisma than its excruciatingly dull (British-built) successor, the Nissan Primera. The design boom that characterised the Eighties was not set off by the chaps and chapesses at the Design Council; it was led by retailers at the top end of the market, picked up and magnified by the post-Wapping media.

The computer and computer-driven communications industries were in their infancy. Men in suits who spoke of the information technology revolution were considered a number of apples short of a picnic. Within a few years, thousands would be buying laptops from high-street chains which had more power than the electronic brain in the Apollo 11 capsule that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon when the Beatles were still going strong.

Architects, strangers yet to CAD (computer-aided design), were not allowed to advertise their skills in 1979 (too vulgar), nor to appear in the adverts of others (touting for cash). Today Sir Norman Foster, the world's most successful architect, appears in swish adverts for Rolex watches. Whatever one thinks of Rolex watches, no one would accuse Stormin' Norman, a multi- millionaire, of touting for cash.

The best architecture, like much that was good in the arts, was largely state-funded. Smart architects turned their sensitive noses up at the very idea of designing shops and bars when they were used to working for Oxbridge dons and dealing with the intelligentsia. Within a few years, many of the best young architects make their names designing chic bars and fashionable cafes.

The arts were subsidised, but rarely sponsored. In a trice, Maggie's Blues had turned sponsorship (of sport, of the arts) from what seemed like a vulgar gimmick to a necessity. If sponsorship meant rows of empty seats in the Royal Opera House while the City chaps whose banks had paid for their seats got sloshed on champagne and Kiri Te Kanawa sang her heart out to a less-than-capacity audience, who cared?

The connection between money and the arts developed into an unprecedented symbiosis. Business folk began to enjoy the arts and the artists began to benefit. What started with football and cricket moved on to opera, theatre and the fine arts. Today's young artists - Damien Hirst, Vanessa Mae spring to mind - are money-minded in a way that no young painter or virtuoso was 18 years ago. Artists - except Picasso, and he was foreign and dead - suffered. Young bankers, or those born to bank, like Jay Jopling, became art dealers, making fast bucks from fresh talent. For Thatcher's children, Mammon and the Muses shared the same bed.

Young artists claimed to be apolitical as the Eighties progressed. To be Red was to be dead in the waters of contemporary art. Who wanted to be a loser holed up in a leaking studio in Lambeth when, with a little help from City slickers turned wheeler-dealers, young artists could be slurping champagne in the Groucho Club (founded 1986)?

Smart young things who would have gone from art school to Sotheby's or Christie's only years before were pulling strings to join the fashionable art scene. If mama or papa couldn't help, or the art jobs had already been handed out, there was always a little number as researcher for Shout! TV or In Your Ear Radio.

Deregulation, the smashing of the unions, the selling off of nationalised industries and the rise of computer power could only go so far in raising and stretching money for the new-look art world. The truth was, as the recession proved (it set in with a vengeance in 1989 and bottomed out two years later) that a ride on the free market horse might be lively, but it was as unsure as an unsaddled stallion.

The Lottery was the next Tory stroke. Despised by puritans and do-gooders, the Lottery has pumped more money into the arts than worthy Labour governments ever did. The philistines might be in power, but the money was getting through. Would the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art have left the architects' drawing board without Lottery funding? The list of projects primed and fuelled by the Lottery is longer than Twizzle's arm (and if you can remember who Twizzle was, as I can, you were definitely brought up on a plain diet of black-and-white TV).

The workings of Lottery bodies have been criticised (giving too much money for this, not enough for that), but we have become used to these vast sums of money as quickly as we learnt to surf the Internet, as quickly as we have got used to express trains run by private franchises with improbable names and even more improbable liveries.

In fact, so much money has been pumped into the arts that there has been a puritan backlash. Tony Blair and co have been talking of redirecting money from the arts to health care and housing. After all, the poor spend more on the Lottery than the well-off, but it is the well-off who gain most from Lottery funding. It seems unlikely that the pounds 100m-plus pumped into the remodelling of the Royal Opera House will ever be an alternative to Spurs vs Arsenal matches for football fans, even if Pavarotti links the worlds of opera and soccer, and, since the World Cup, the lads on the terraces can singalonga Puccini.

Blair would be unwise to tackle the Lottery's funding of the arts and to kick it into the social services goal. The Lottery is the one chance Britain has of funding the arts to any significant degree. With its millions we can create a new generation of galleries, museums and artworks of all kinds and pay for their long-term upkeep. Lottery-funded arts projects are pushing architecture ahead by leaps and bounds, proving that we can rival the best that Europe has to offer.

Not only this, but the arts are good business. A significant proportion of the population now works in what has been called the "culture" industry, and while the thought might make curmudgeons reach for their revolvers, this industry (along with tourism) really is helping the economy to tick over more readily, and certainly more happily than it has in many years. Art is ultimately profitable (very profitable), but it should be funded anyway.

The Lottery, the state of the unions, the apparent success of many areas of the free market are Tory successes and the result of Tory battles. New Labour has been made possible by 18 years in opposition.

Even so, there are many things the Tories have got painfully wrong and which a new government could put right if it was minded to. The Tory good times were also silly times. The Thatcher-Lawson boom (a boom that went phut in 1987 and bang two years later) was to put thousands of businesses into liquidation and to cause untold misery for millions. By 1991, not a single property scheme in London's Docklands was afloat. As the Docklands were meant to have been the showcase of the market economy, this downturn was a short sharp shock for the Tories. Short-term free market policies were not enough to recreate a whole urban district.

Meanwhile, investment in public housing all but dried up, leaving housing associations and other charities to struggle on. By not spending on public housing, the Government was creating conditions in which crime and juvenile delinquency (there's a pre-79 phrase for you) was likely to rise. And it did. At the same time, the deregulation of public services created a situation in which those living in well-off areas were offered a better deal than those living in poor areas.

Deregulation appears to have served the middle classes well, but not the poor, incompetent or hopeless. Deregulation of finance houses created a new wave of wealthy young things, while deregulation of city buses has replaced once-proud civic services with the free market at its cynical worst. Regulation, at its best, offers an equal standard of service to rich and poor alike.

In terms of the choice of cafes and art galleries, restaurants, television channels, newspapers and magazines that Maggie's world has offered us, we are better off than we were in 1979. Britain, for those who have and know how to get, is a lot more enjoyable than it was 18 years ago. It is also profoundly decadent. The big question is - and certainly for apolitical young artists quaffing champagne (and chewing gum at the same time) in Groucho's - who cares? It's been a cultural roller-coaster ride. Attempt to slow it down or control it and you might end up stopping it in its tracks

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