Why do our politicians seem to hate the arts?

Perhaps it's because they can be difficult to understand

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As so often, it’s for the leaving of a job that the occupant saves her best lines. Liz Forgan, outgoing boss of the Arts Council, has bitten the hand that fed her, by suggesting that the Government is about as keen on culture as cats are about having baths. Even Michael Gove (Education) and Maria Miller (er, Culture) would be happier, Forgan suggests, to be seen at the Emirates Stadium than the ENO. Football is a much better look, frankly.

She is spot on. Even though British culture is revered across the world; even though it provides jobs, inspiration and joy to millions in the UK, you will never catch a politician actually attending an arts event. I have never bumped into an MP, let alone a minister, in a theatre foyer. If they do go at all, they creep in after the house lights have been dimmed, as if they had a problem parking, and were late. 

It used to be just the left which was nervous about being seen bothering the Crush Bar. Lord Gowrie, one of Forgan’s predecessors, told me Labour politicians would rather have their eyes poked out than be seen enjoying Mozart. Under Tony Blair’s watch, the arts were absolutely a four-letter word, more so even than God. Can anyone ever remember seeing Blair at any cultural event? He only insisted on turning up at the opening of Tate Modern because a) the Queen was there and b) the opening of the Dome had been so awful. There was only one politician happy to be seen at arts events, and that was Chris Smith, who was gay, and was therefore expected to hang out with luvvies.

Honorable mention must also go to John Major, who insisted that culture be included in the lottery as a Good Cause. But of course Major, son of a circus performer, had no problem with showbiz. If the lottery were invented today, I seriously doubt the arts would make the cut. 

Why do politicians hate culture? Is it because it is difficult to understand? Only a complete moron would suggest the arts live in a rarified zone of smartypants speaking Latin and reading Cuneiform. And the rules of football are quite difficult too (offside, anyone?) At the Olympics opening ceremony, Danny Boyle had no issue with our culture. Who was there? Shakespeare. Elgar. Blake. Dickens. Milton. E L Travers. J M Barrie, and Paul Weller, to name but a few. British culture was quite rightly given as much of the glory as cricket, the Health Service and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The politicians had to watch it, and applaud, uneasily.

Pretending to be a football fan is probably an easier role to manage for members of this “we’re-all-in-it-together” Government, because football doesn’t brook dissent. Great art picks holes in the status quo; it asks questions, it poses challenges. It is about beauty and love and life and tragedy, about boredom and disappointment and despair, sometimes all on a single canvas – an awkward portfolio for an MP to tuck under his or her arm.

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