Leading Article: Labour prepares a culture shock

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The Independent Online
TO BRITISH ears, the idea of a Ministry of Culture has Orwellian associations. It conjures up memories of the imperial capital that Albert Speer wished to build in Berlin for Hitler, and of the depressing apology for art that was known in the Soviet Union as Socialist Realism. So it is risky for Mo Mowlam, who speaks for the Labour Party on heritage issues, to wish to change the name of the Department of National Heritage. Since the department already has a generous budget, considerable powers of patronage and a seat at the cabinet table, many will see Labour's proposed culture ministry as a sinister beast.

In fact, Ms Mowlam's intentions are more benign. She argues correctly that the billions spent by government every year on British culture are spread between the accounts of many different departments. Television regulation, music teaching in schools, tax breaks to fashion design - all of these things are in part cultural policies.

It is a short step from this to the observation that there is a co-ordinating job to be done in making the public sector more aware of the cultural impact of its actions. Government can do much to promote high standards and good design - and show the private sector that these things, far from costing money, can prove cheaper in the long term than their shoddier alternatives. However, Labour should resist the temptation to set itself up as an arbiter of taste, even in the most broadly strategic sense.

The Labour proposals for the Arts Council, embryonic as they may appear, are therefore worrying. Ms Mowlam wants government to set 'directions, parameters and strategy' for the arts. This sounds innocuous, but implies seizing from the council its most important job and abolishing the sound principle that these decisions should be kept at arm's length from ministers and their advisers. Nor would a Ministry of Culture have much success in picking winners in cultural industries such as film or fashion.

Yet if she and her colleagues can eschew the instincts to centralise and subsidise, Ms Mowlam may have the makings of an admirable cultural policy for the coming decade. Her present plans are sketchy on detail, but that is no failing. There may still be plenty of time before Labour has the chance to put them into effect.