Don't end one of our few great Enlightenment legacies

Andrew Marr On Museum charges
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The Independent Online
The Conservative Party was shocked. It understood that it lost the election. These things happen, even to great parties. But why was it so hated by so many otherwise mild, reasonable people? Well, one reason was that the Tories came to seem mean in spirit, custodians of a grim, Treasury-dominated world in which everything had a price and nothing seemed to have value outside the ledger book. This is not a mean-spirited country, however. So we elected a new government.

And now, is it all happening again? One of the things the Treasury never quite managed to achieve under the Tories was to put price-barriers up around the very best of our art galleries and museums. One of the glories of Britain has been the freely available great art collections, from Glasgow and Plymouth to Sheffield and Belfast. The best of the best are in London, where from chunks of the Parthenon in the British Museum, through the mainstream Western painting collections of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, to the modern and British art of the Tate, the people have had free access to one of the great accumulations of world art.

This heritage is not a remnant of the post-war state. It dates from the founding of the British Museum in 1759. For more than 200 years, national politicians and municipal authorities have recognised that free admission is good for culture, education and the general mental well-being of the country. It is, to use a hopeless old-fashioned term, elevating.

Now, with the arrival of a shiny new Labour government, one which revels in the rubbed-off glamour of rock stars and fashion designers, and which has boldly used the word ``Culture'' in renaming the Department of National Heritage, there seems a real possibility that it could all be brought to an end.

The rumour was started a couple of weeks ago when the undeniably cultured arts minister, Mark Fisher, made a speech to the Museums and Galleries Commission in which he failed to mention free admission at all - even though it had been a pretty constant theme of Labour in opposition. It is now clear that the Treasury is giving Mr Fisher's boss, Chris Smith, a very torrid time over the issue.

The Culture Secretary wants to protect free admissions and to begin to turn the tide so as to open up some of the charging museums, like the Natural History Museum and the V&A. But with their budgets cut in real terms and little support from the Treasury, the free national museums are already under terrible pressure to charge.

The most immediate problem is at the British Museum, where the move away of the British Library and recent grant cuts have pushed the trustees close to the brink of accepting charges. They meet on December 6 and have a real dilemma about how the Museum is going to get through the next financial year.

The consensus in Museum-land is that if the BM topples, many other museums and galleries throughout Britain will give up the struggle and begin to charge admission too. This may be the hype of campaigners, but there are plenty of people in Whitehall and at Westminster who agree. A tradition rooted in the Enlightenment and secured by the Victorians could then gutter and disappear under Blair. The Treasury couldn't give a hoot. But many people will. What happens over the next fortnight will affect Labour's reputation for a long time to come.

But isn't the Treasury right, you may ask. Why should the rest of us subsidise those who wish to wander and loll in front of old paintings or sculpture? Isn't this just like the Opera: old, elitist culture which should struggle in the market for its quids like everything else? And why should British taxpayers whose idea of fine art is an Athena print pay for the aesthetic pleasure of cultural tourists from Kyoto, Hamburg or Chicago?

People who criticise the idea of free galleries and museums mostly don't use them, or understand how they are best used. Yes, tourists might fork out a fiver a head to see the National Gallery once. Yes, there are some better-off art addicts who would pay time and time again, becoming ``friends'' of favourite galleries, buying season tickets or whatever.

But for those of us who love these galleries, and people who are learning to love them, the whole point is to be able to pop in. An hour or two leaves you with aching feet and a numb mind. You need to be able to U- turn off the street, or squeeze a stolen quarter of an hour, to look at a particular painting or exhibit. Charging would stop most people even thinking of doing so. Unsurprisingly, galleries that do charge have found fewer people making short visits.

In the end, the argument reduces to whether great art is valuable - not for national hoarding but for popular experiencing. How much good does that do? From the standpoint of the state, how do you measure that indescribable whoosh of pleasure in the mind of milling citizens who experience at first hand the emotional and intellectual power of a Stanley Spencer or a Titian? What's it worth on the balance sheet?

Answer: nothing. Art critics and philosophers have, from time to time, tried to demonstrate that a love of form and colour, of drawing and harmony, leads to better citizenship, moral intelligence and good living. None has succeeded. None ever will.

And it doesn't matter a damn. Pleasure doesn't need an external measure of value. The great collections are there because, generation after generation, people liked and valued them. Lots of people from different backgrounds found they made life more tolerable. They soothed, excited, provoked, reassured.

Retaining them as great stone-clad machines to make us happier is part of our national luck. For any democrat, it is a luck that should be shared as widely as possible. Putting barriers at the doors of the National or the Tate will - whatever the politicians say - shut out people whose lives would otherwise be enriched by what is behind them.

Above all, these galleries and museums and their contents belong to us, not them. They are not the property of trustees, or the Treasury, or any passing political administration. Unlike any private theatre, or cinema, they are ours. Discouraging us from entering them would be like charging people to walk through Trafalgar Square, or Cambridge, or Edinburgh New Town.

One of the central philosophical failings of the Conservative years was a failure to understand properly the value of the public, as against the private. The public space, collection, building or service provides a place where we can all stand equally together, at least for a while. Whatever their own tastes, earlier generations of Labour politicians understood the point instinctively. I hope that this one does too.