Let the market return to Covent Garden

Why shouldn't Covent Garden charge the earth for its seats? Today's news is that it will break its record once again, with up to £260 for the forthcoming Pavarotti concert. Shock! Horror! Whatever happened to the idea, familiar in a thousand speec hes, of wider public access to the arts?

It is a good moment to take a deep breath and acknowledge that this is almost one hundred per cent delusion. More politely, an ever-deferred aspiration. There is no evidence that the kind of person who goes to the theatre has changed by one hair's breadth over the past 20 years. The theatre is less central to popular culture than a home video and a six-pack.

This is not to sell theatre short. It remains one of the arts we are rather good at - world class - unlike, say, painting or tennis. Everyone should want to see it flourish. The question is whether it should dodge the usual rules: that people who want a particular item which pleases them should pay for it.

Just about every entry price in the leisure trade has been going up faster than inflation. Yet according to those who study cultural trends, it makes little difference to how many people go. We pay up happily - provided we think that, overall, we are ge

tting a good night (or afternoon) out. And if not, then not.

The Royal Opera House is, of course, in an odd, even indefensible position, because of the sheer size of its subsidy. Every penny comes from general taxation, and is a transfer from poor to rich. The real question that arises now is not: how can we get the prices down? It is: why don't we let it feel the breeze of an unfettered market?

Glyndebourne, slightly cheaper now than Covent Garden, gets zilch from public funds. Nor, in another neck of the arts, does the Royal Academy. Keynes invented our system of arts subsidy in the 1940s because he loved opera and ballet, which were still then struggling for survival in Britain. That is no longer true. The taste, and the performances, have been established. We need a new Keynes, in this area as in so many others. Exactly why should football fans subsidise the theatres they never, or seldom, go to?