Chilling with the kids at the Latitude Festival this weekend, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw, looked extraordinarily relaxed for someone whose ministry had just dealt a hammer blow to musical expression in the UK. Participating in a packed debate about media, Bradshaw had been amiable, almost liberal, in his views about Page Three girls and the celebrity culture.
It is music for which his Government has developed a bizarre, sustained hatred – or, to be more accurate, a certain kind of music. There is no problem with the big, moneyed, well-sponsored acts of the type performing on the main stages of Latitude and other festivals. It is the kind of acts found on the fringes of these events – small, scruffy, dangerously individual and spontaneous – which seems to frighten ministers, and has caused them to dump yet another mess of pointless legislation on to the statute books.
Six years ago, the Blair Government decided, for reasons which were and remain mysterious, that live music – that is, any music, acoustic or amplified, played by one musician or more in a public place – causes a threat to public order. It passed the Licensing Act, which required pubs or clubs to fill out a complicated form and pay for a permit from the local council.
There would be no exceptions. A person playing a ukulele accompanied by someone else on a triangle would be breaking the law if the act appeared in a pub without the required license. There was no control, on the other hand, over noise blaring from a large TV screen or from recorded music.
This bafflingly silly piece of legislation, which punished musicians and publicans, two professions that were already in difficulty, had the effect of causing many pubs to abandon live music. After a long campaign, headed by the charity UK Music, sanity seemed to have broken through in May when a Commons Select Committee looking into the act concluded that music should not automatically be considered a disruptive activity. The "draconian" law had discouraged performance, "especially by young musicians".
The Government has just rejected the committee's recommendations. Ben Bradshaw has decreed that, when it comes to music's potential for stirring violence, the number of musicians or the size of audience is irrelevant. Clearly bored by the subject, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has said that the subject is now closed.
Could someone in government, in the ministry, in the police, explain the thinking behind this idiocy? Surely even the most blinkered, legislation-addicted minister can see that it is not music which causes trouble when people are gathered together, but alcohol. It is asinine to blame musicians for what is a general social problem.
There has been extraordinarily little evidence to back up the Government's position – no sobering statistics about guitar riots, or chilling accounts of accordion-related violence. Feebly, a civil servant has argued that, in spite of the Licensing Act, the venues putting on live music in the UK have increased since 2007.
Of course they have. Surely, the news has reached Whitehall by now that Britain is going through a musical renaissance. There has been a huge increase in the numbers of those who attend concerts and festivals. In an age of control and corporatism, when so much of life and work is mediated through screens, performed music is a defiant, and increasingly powerful, expression of the individual human spirit.
Could that, just possibly, be the problem? Is the reason why politicians fear the kind of music which is not controlled by sponsors or huge marketing interests that it represents freedom? A government which likes to boast of the country's "creative industries" is one which deals with life as if it were part of a big business. Everything must be licensed, controlled.
There is a sad irony here for those who have voted Labour down the years. The last time there was an explosion of song-writing outside the power of record companies was some 45 years ago. At that time, a Labour government briefly had the courage to embrace musical performance as part of a young and changing Britain.
Today, those in charge are wary of unlicensed spontaneity. This absurd campaign against musicians, particularly young musicians, may not be the most grievous act of this Government but it represents a spirit of petty-mindedness and fear which will cost it dearly over the next 12 months.
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