Leading Article: Trust Labour's old cultural ideals

THE AMBIVALENT British attitude towards culture is summed up in the new name for the ministry which does those bits of government that do not fit in more familiar departments. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport started life as that of National Heritage, as if the only culture which mattered was inherited from the dead.

Such is our suspicion, though, of Ministries of Culture, a foreign concept like Ministries of Justice or the Interior, that Chris Smith had to tack on two other words to soften the impact.

In popular perception there are only two kinds of culture, high and low, and the Government's involvement in either of them is deeply suspect. First, there is high culture, which is oil paintings and opera, where the role of government is to tax honest, hard-working folk of modest means in order to subsidise the pleasures of toffs. Then there is low culture, which is sport and pop music, where the role of government is to have its senior members pose for the cameras in the company of the currently fashionable stars in the hope that this will attract votes - a ploy which has a tendency to backfire.

Tony Blair should have known New Labour's New Luvvies would turn on him as soon as they had emptied the Downing Street cellars, just as John Prescott should have expected his street cred to be doused with a bucket of cold water. Rock musicians are not supposed to approve of politicians; just as you would not ask a politician to compose rebellious music.

Yesterday's hint that Gordon Brown will act to ensure free entry to the great national museums and art galleries is a much more substantial gesture, not because it is "high" rather than "low" culture, but because it suggests an appreciation of culture which is deep rather than shallow.

The Independent and The Independent on Sunday have campaigned for free entry because we see the country's great cultural institutions as part of our communal life, our public space, offering everyone the chance to discover things they might not choose to pay for.

We are pleased to see that this ideal still has some hold on our national leaders. It seems that, in their drive to modernise socialism, they have not in fact forgotten its early values. Many of its 19th-century thinkers, from the early Marx to William Morris, spoke about art as the form of work by which people could be ennobled and uplifted.

This should be the response both to left-wing philistinism, which sees culture as an elite activity, and to liberal scepticism, which associates a ministry of culture with state propaganda. We have to reclaim inclusiveness, seeing culture as the description of a fuller life for everyone, and reclaim a liberating role for the state.

Philosophically, the answer to the philistines is in Mr Blair's own constitution for his party, the new Clause IV, which declares that "by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone": a public library is testimony to a stronger society than a private one, just as a free school, museum or art gallery is. It creates "for each of us the means to realise our true potential" which creates "for all of us a community".

But this should be the start, not the end, of debate. We welcome Gerry Robinson's decision to sack all the members of the Arts Council. There can be no going back to the period when fossilised art galleries and musty museums found themselves overtaken by television, when bleating for handouts stifled creative energies. There is more than a hint of this is the whingeing of Oasis's manager that such great talent could never have flowered if the band had not been allowed to do whatever it liked on the dole for as many years as it pleased.

But let us have an open argument about the boundaries. If the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum should be free, why should we pay pounds 17.50 for the Millennium Experience?

Mr Blair's emphasis on unleashing the creative talent of the British people is absolutely right. These cultural skills increasingly drive the nation's economy. Labour politicians ought to be seen more with artists, popular scientists, writers, computer software designers, architects and commercial directors - instead of consorting with the shallow cult of football. On the eve of a "Budget for women and children" the Chancellor sent a strange signal by endorsing the New Lad culture, watching Tottenham Hotspur from the directors' box at White Hart Lane.

Let the Government promote an inclusive notion of culture, high and low, and use that to convince us that it is not simply concerned with surface perceptions but a deeper, fuller life for all.