The Tories have had an arts bypass

Theatre grandees and curators have rounded on the Culture Secretary for taking a bleakly utilitarian approach to their professions

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The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, addressing an audience of arts world luminaries at the British Museum last Wednesday, was never going to have an easy time of it, whatever she said. There have been good Conservative arts ministers – one thinks of Lord Gowrie in the 1980s, a practising poet able to advise Mrs Thatcher on her choice of laureate – and there have been poor ones (list available on receipt of a first-class stamp), but the greenery-yallery tendency is to write them off as Philistines from the start. Had Ms Miller offered six-figure tax-free bursaries to every avant-garde novelist in England she would still have been received in stony silence.

Every so often a brisk little controversy breaks out in the culture sections of national newspapers under the heading "What good are the arts?". The country's leading literary critic, Professor John Carey, once wrote a book of precisely this title in which he managed to prove, at any rate to his own satisfaction, that they were really of no value to anyone. But then, of course, it depends what you mean by "value". Like most Tory culture secretaries before her, Ms Miller took a distinctly utilitarian line. "In an age of austerity when times are tough and money is tight," she told her listeners, "our focus must be on culture's economic impact."

Although some of Ms Miller's detractors – notably the actor Samuel West – were having none of this, I was rather startled by the number of arts world figures who, while disagreeing with her, were approaching the debate from the Government's angle. Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, agreed that "investment in the arts has a central role in bringing about a return to growth". Sir John Tusa, former managing director of the Barbican, claimed that "the research is there; what the arts do for the economy, for employment and for cities".

Cheering as all this is, it surely irrelevant to the main issue. The main function of "art", surely, is to give its participants pleasure, to heighten their sense of the kind of people they are and the world they inhabit? In much the same way, whatever most vice-chancellors seem to believe, the average university is not – or at any rate not primarily – there to produce computer programmers or lawyers or aeronautical engineers, or to help with urban regeneration. It exists to educate, which is a rather different thing.

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To read the first volume of Charles Moore's biography of Baroness Thatcher – not nearly as partisan as some advance notices have suggested – is to be reminded of the importance to politicians of the personal myth. You notice this with the front-benchers of the Victorian age just as much as our own: an endless series of self-dramatising reflexes that smooth and ultimately validate their path through life. An aristocratic young lady on whom the young Mr Gladstone had his eye is once supposed to have looked out of the window of her parents' baronial hall, seen her admirer stalking deedily up the drive, and remarked to her mother: "Mamma, I cannot marry a man who carries his bag like that."

Clearly Mr Gladstone had from an early stage in his career created a persona, a crystalline vision of himself which onlookers could either embrace or disdain as they chose. The elements of Mrs Thatcher's personal myth seem to date from her Oxford days: the lonely, hard-working outsider, gazing in on the establishment from beyond the paling fence. Although she seems to have had the greatest respect for Janet Vaughan, her patronising tutor at Somerville, you wonder what Lady Thatcher's private thoughts were about the woman who later remarked that "nobody thought anything of her".

James Callaghan's personal myth, on the other hand, sprang from his non-attendance at Mrs Thatcher's alma mater. "Prime Minister of Great Britain" he observed, almost wonderingly, when news of his election was brought to him. "And I never went to a university." What soaring, private visions give succour to Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband? We shall find out.

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It was gratifying to learn from a survey published last week that not only is the UK a safer place, the murder rate having fallen from 1.99 per 100,000 to one in the past decade, but that I live only a few miles from the safest area of all – the district of Broadland to the north and east of Norwich. Certainly Norwich itself seems a much less violent city than it did 30 years ago, when, walking home clad in the bright blue blazer of Norwich School, you could expect to be spat on, if not actually assaulted, by "lads" from the local comprehensives.

Naturally these distinctions are relative. My father used to lament the 1970s jungle it was his fate to inhabit, while admitting that there were streets in Norwich 40 years before which the police only dared venture down in twos. He had a particularly good story about taking part in an open-air church service on the then notorious West Earlham estate and being chased away by a stone-throwing mob. As for the cause of this new-found pacifism, for once technology is working to society's benefit. However much you may dislike the sleek anaesthetising blanket of Facebook, computer games and internet-crawling, it does at least keep people off the streets.

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