You can judge a Culture Secretary by what his book leaves out

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The Independent Online
THE TIMING was suitably dramatic.

Just as the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, was launching his book Creative Britain in a bash at the Tate Gallery on Thursday night, so the entire drama panel of the Arts Council made a crisis out of a drama and resigned en masse.

The new Council under Smith's own appointee, the businessman Gerry Robinson, was alleged to be far from creative - run by businessmen and cost-cutters. "I am distressed," said the panel's chairwoman, Thelma Holt, the West End producer. "I'm Labour and I've worked for Labour but I did better under Virginia Bottomley."

As the news broke, Smith was chatting to her fellow authors Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie, who also know a bit about how external events can overshadow your best literary efforts. In Smith's case, though, he has brought the bad reviews upon himself. What cannot be disguised by his book (or collection of speeches, to use a more accurate term) is that the Secretary of State, in his first year, has failed by the very standards he has set himself.

In the lengthy and challenging introduction to his book, Smith writes that his four key themes for "the nurturing of creative activity and enjoyment ... are access, excellence, education and economic value".

Yet in his first year all four of these cornerstones have been threatened by a cash cut in the Arts Council grant to its clients; something the Tories never dared to do. The Royal Shakespeare Company, one of the victims, cannot afford to pay the salaries to attract top-class performers away from television and the West End. This is not mentioned in the book. Neither is the closure of the Greenwich Theatre, in the shadow of the pounds 750m Dome.

"It simply won't do, Minister," declared Sir Peter Hall about the cash cut to the Arts Council at an awards ceremony, pointing at Smith. Neither will it do for Smith to claim in his book: "I understand the disappointment ... but I would say, first, look at what we have been able to do - from incentives for film to help for music in schools to securing free admission to some of our greatest museums and galleries. Consider also the additional pounds 5m ... to provide a `new audiences' fund for the performing arts ..."

Consider also the following: The guarantee of free admission at some of the national museums is only for a year and took a sustained media campaign; museums such as the Victoria and Albert, which already charge, were not given money to end charges, thus creating a two-tier system. Two national institutions - the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside and the National Museum of Scotland - have introduced charges since Labour came to power.

Consider, too, the new audiences fund. It bears little relation to the promises of Labour when it was in opposition for widespread cheaper seats to encourage youngsters, and nationwide pay-what-you-can evenings. It consists of a couple of pilot schemes including the daft notion of drafting opera singers and Shakespearean actors into nightclubs.

As for education, one of the country's very few theatres for children is fighting for its life. And the help for music teaching in schools is a government initiative that has passed most parents by.

Chris Smith is a thoughtful and well-liked minister. But he has failed the first test, which is to persuade the Treasury of the arts' importance. However, there is a deeper failing in Labour's culture ministry.

The Secretary of State has failed, too, to provide the country with a vision of why the arts matter. He now belatedly dismisses the gimmick of Cool Britannia. But he has not replaced it with any coherent framework of cultural values that transcend class barriers and are a source of national pride. Not even a much- hyped book with a Damien Hirst cover can disguise that.

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