Goodbye heritage, hello culture

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The Independent Online
We don't have capital-c Culture in this country. We have music, poetry, all that. But Culture is for foreigners, a bit lah-de-dah, a bit poncey. In Britain, when we use the word we tend to prefix it to make it sound domestic and unthreatening (``working class culture''; ``television culture''). And increasingly, at a national level, we call it Heritage.

This is interesting because, in cultural terms, heritage is another word for death. Heritage is what dying cultures become just before they are interred. Heritage means museums of coal-mining and unpeopled country houses. It means Gaelic classes, Roman remains with neatly trimmed grass around them, Spitfires on metal sticks and scores of tourist ``experiences''. Heritage is safe, innocuous, silent and cancelled. Heritage is what London would like Orange Order marches to become, and what Orangemen are strenuously resisting.

Yet we have a Department of National Heritage. You might as well call it the Department of Cultural Death. I don't mean it has done a particularly bad job of overseeing lottery handouts, sporting quangos or providing chatty types for the Today programme - though it has been a poor media regulator, on the whole. But I do mean that it hasn't exploited the full possibilities of a nation which has been a booming cultural success story.

British creativity, in architecture, fashion, music, poetry, film and even - despite the Goldsmiths College hype - visual art has been one of the constant, cheering threads running through the past decade. This goes well beyond the stuff about London being ``the capital of cool'' or the odd fashion show with dangling bones. Culture is big business and becoming bigger.

In a fast-trading global system, where added value means everything, success in culture and design brings rich rewards: jobs, investment and cachet. The software geniuses and the musical or clothing innovators who catch a mood are our equivalent of Victorian engineers and explorers. The rock music business by itself, for instance, is worth some pounds 2.5bn to Britain each year. Though there are only 650,000 direct producers of culture - musicians, artists and so on - millions of people depend on their ideas and output for jobs.

Britain's cultural revival has happened without much incitement or help from government. The things that were subsidised before are still, mostly, subsidised. But there has been little official enthusiasm, leadership or strategy for the country's future as a world producer of buildings, tunes and stories.

Yet, through the Conservative years, many people yearned for a different cultural mood. With a new government, they thought, we could be like Barcelona and Milan. We could be a cool, young-again nation. And when Islington went to bed, from the late Eighties to the late Nineties, counting the profits from the design practice or the TV commission, it still lisped a prayer for a properly cultured leader in Downing Street. It wanted a lead from the top.

And now? Tony and the Blairites have been cautiously neutral on the whole vexed question. Populism dictates. If Number Ten's number one priority is to keep The Sun happy, then football and the Spice Girls are the stuff, not ``culture''. Posh beds, haircuts and fun holidays are fine because they are things ordinary families aspire to. Opera, architecture and the aesthetics of urban design are iffy because they can't be packaged for tabloid story-telling.

Yet this is a government that needs culture and cultural revival. Its essential rhetoric, its banging-on about youth and new beginnings, has been passionately anti-heritage. Had Blair not been well aware of the economic power, and the propaganda value, of cutting-edge culture, the decision over the Millennium Dome would certainly have gone the other way.

That , indeed, was an eloquent expression of Blair's political dilemma: most ministers were against it and so, ferociously, was The Sun, now the Blairs' favoured paper. Yet to have abandoned the Dome, and his friend Lord Rogers, would have made Blair's name mud among many of the cool and cultured. And though that decision was a one-off, cultural policy, particularly since the Lottery is involved, represents a constant series of similar choices.

So how will Blair play this most interesting and tricky area? We may be about to find out. Within the next 10 days or so, the Department of National Heritage will (hooray) disappear and a new Ministry of Culture (I hope) will instantly rise from its ashes. Heritage Britain will find it has lost another battle.

Chris Smith, who was given this most enjoyable and influential of cabinet jobs because of his popularity in the arts world, will follow up with some good and populist stuff about shifting lottery funds towards educational and health projects, and to more basic cultural needs, like the provision of musical instruments and teachers in schools that lack them.

But beyond that, there is a wide-ranging review of cultural policy itself. How directly involved should government be? What should its priorities be? Is the money well spent? All this is to be welcomed, and matters. The Government has certain values and instincts that ought to affect its attitude to the arts; and it isn't obvious that the current political arts establishment feels the same way.

Is it likely that Lord Gowrie, a Conservative Peer and highbrow consumer of London culture, the head of the Arts Council, is the man to operate an inclusive Labour policy towards the arts? No. Is it likely that the current regime in the Arts Council or Covent Garden feels as strongly as the new ministers about cheap opera seats? Again - despite their protestations - no.

So one of the questions being debated is the future, if any, for the Arts Council itself. This most important of quangos currently funds a string of big national institutions, including the National Theatre, Covent Garden, the English National Opera and the RSC. It audits and tries to set national cultural policies. It oversees regional arts bodies. But shouldn't all these functions be carried out by the minister and his civil servants instead?

The department already directly oversees other institutions, such as the Tate Gallery. And it is hard to see the point of a culture minister if he doesn't direct and assess national cultural policy. These points have not been missed at the department. It is unlikely that the Arts Council will go in the near future, and Lord Gowrie's job is safe in the short term. But I think it will be severely pruned back and perhaps eventually closed down. Meanwhile, a proper Ministry of Culture, however named, has the chance to start a noisy revolution in the funding and support of Britain's cultural life.

The Sun would hate it with a passion. But cheer-leading and enthusing the new cultural industries, and their audiences, would earn Britain more money, change more lives and raise the quality of national life more than much conventional politics - hemmed in, as most departments are, by budget constraints and the limits of the possible. This is cheap, leveraged politics. And if it destroyed the idea that this is a country held together not by culture, politics or values but by ``heritage'' - well, that would be the greatest achievement of all.