In the magpie politics of the Blair era, let's hear it for the Sixties

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NO GOVERNMENT anywhere in the world containing a Chris Smith could be seriously oppressive. The Minister for Culture is a cheering-up man, a "why not?" politician who has managed to retain a decent scepticism and freedom of spirit in the midst of New Labour Whitehall. He is not, perhaps, Downing Street's favourite cabinet minister, and his department is merely a bright minnow in a vat of eels and dogfish; but British public life would be greyer without him.

That is another way of saying that we would be a lesser lot without the Sixties. For Mr Smith is a child of the Sixties - not merely as an openly homosexual politician, but more importantly as a radical optimist about the ability of political action to make life better; and as an enthusiast for culture - low and high. He is gay in the old sense, too.

You may ask how a child of the Sixties fits into a government so clearly led according to the more austere values of the Eighties and Nineties. It is an interesting question. But one of the odder things about this administration is that it is living in different decades at the same time. Politics is no longer a process of discovering new truths.

It seems a complicated idea, but it is not. Take painting: there was an exhibition a few years ago at London's Hayward Gallery which argued that the old linear progression of art history was dead. We had had impressionism, followed by post-impressionism, then expressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art and conceptual art. Each school came with a glossy and expensive coffee-table book, and followed a reassuring series of progressions, so that the diligent student could trace and place the century's painters on a grand family tree called Western Art.

Forget that, said the Hayward exhibition's organisers. Finally, all that was over. Painting had nowhere new to go. Hundreds of years of artistic taboo-breaking and uppity generational revolt against the old had reached its logical conclusion. Nothing was left that hadn't already been tried with colour, flat surfaces and lines.

So, what next? The exhibition's conclusion was rather liberating. It was that there was (and is) a creative anarchy in which everything is allowed, where different kinds of art coexist simultaneously without challenging or overcoming one another. History, in that sense, is over.

Up to a point, that is clearly true. In modern British art there are the conceptual artists, like Damien Hirst, but there are also people like Howard Hodgkin, the hugely popular colourist; Fiona Rae, whose nude self- portraits recall Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud; and Gary Hume, a modern pop artist. What matters isn't any longer "where is art going next?". That is a meaningless question now. The question is how good different people are at what they do. Forget trend and fashion: look for spirit and technique.

The Hayward show was so thought-provoking because a very similar conclusion applies to many other things - other arts, certainly, like architecture and fiction, but, more generally, to attitudes as well. For instance, the Independent, from Monday to Sunday, is read by religious fundamentalists, Darwinians, atheists and New Agers whose belief systems are wholly different, yet who coexist in a relatively relaxed millennial saloon-bar.

One handy term for this situation, though it has been horribly abused, is postmodernism. In which case Tony Blair is leading a postmodern government which is living simultaneously in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. In its attitudes to sex, popular culture and race, for instance, it is indelibly stamped by the values of rebellious teenagers in the later Sixties. But it also marked by Seventies feminism - people like Harriet Harman, Anna Coote, Tessa Jowell and Cherie Blair spring to mind - and, in a negative way, by the experience of Seventies trade unionism. The Eighties influence comes through the Treasury's fiscal orthodoxy and No 10's brand of Home Counties populism. Yet in its attitudes to political reform, the machinery of government, Europe and the environment, it is living squarely in the Nineties.

Of course, I am simplifying crudely. All administrations everywhere carry traces of the recent past. But there is a colourful jarring of different values which makes Blairism different. It is both instinctively anti-Sixties in its attitudes to the state and welfare, and pro-Sixties in its celebration of cultural diversity. It is Thatcherite on key aspects of macro-economics, yet passionately anti-Thatcherite on, say, EMU.

Does this make it worryingly incoherent? Voters don't seem to think so. Rather, Blair's personality and the variety of ministers and attitudes make it interesting and hard to pin down - both useful attributes in a media age. With earlier governments, one always felt confident about how they would respond to particular questions or challenges. I, at any rate, find this one much harder to predict.

Given that, where do Chris Smith and the Sixties revival fit in? I think we should get back to celebrating the Sixties openly, and not simply in the sly mimicry of some contemporary music and fashion. Because much of the Government's Sixties inheritance is so instinctive, whether on race, sexuality or the importance of popular culture, it is often underestimated. Blair's debt to Thatcher is still noteworthy; his debt to Sixties social reformers such as Roy Jenkins is taken for granted. Yet, in the grand sweep of things, it is probably at least as important.

On the other hand, there was much in the youth revolution which we should happily ditch. This week, Chris Smith was drawn into one of the hoariest student bar conversations of them all. In an interview with the Spectator he was asked to rank Beethoven and Bob Dylan, and Dylan and Keats, after he'd cheerily declared that "the distinctions between the higher and popular arts are meaningless".

Smith denied that Beethoven and Dylan could be put "in a pecking order. I wouldn't want to establish hierarchies". One might retort that, as Culture Secretary, that was exactly what he should be doing. There is an irrefutable hierarchy: and in emotional range, sophistication and depth, Beethoven is at or near the top of it and Bob Dylan is a very long way down. Smith was asked whether Dylan was as "valid" as Keats. Valid is perhaps a weasel word. But in terms of linguistic power, there is no serious contest between the richness and brilliance of the older poet, and the jingling wit of the lesser, younger one.

I say this as someone who spent years standing in front of mirrors dreaming of being Bob Dylan and who listens to the old boy still. But in seeming to equate these people, Smith slides into the worst of Sixties relativism. That relativism, the denial of intellectual and artistic measurement, is bad stuff - obeisance to youth-fixated media bullying. In the new magpie- politics of the Blair era, we need to hang on to the liberalism and tolerance of the Sixties which Smith personifies, without falling for its glib populism.

That said, the influence of the Sixties should at last be openly acknowledged as a key strand of Blairism. If you'd told people 30 years ago that by now Britain would have a Culture Secretary who was openly gay, relaxed and who admitted liking Dylan, they'd have assumed that a great and liberating social revolution must have happened. And the funny thing is, it has.