How Smith Has Crippled Culture
by Norman Lebrecht / June 7, 2000
IN THE bleary fourth year of New Labour, few members of the Cabinet have enhanced their career prospects. Beyond the big guns of Blair and Brown, the further you look down the table the bigger the pile of fumbles and foul-ups – until you reach the lowliest seat of all, where the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport wears a broad smile and an almost unsoiled record.
Whispers in the political wind suggest that Chris Smith is due for a move in this summer’s reshuffle. He has two strong claims for promotion. The first is that his profile is generally positive, even among half-starved arts companies who see Smith as the most sympathetic minister for arts since Jennie Lee invented the job 35 years ago. Concurrently, there is pressure for Smith to go. If he sticks around another year, it is feared, the lid could blow off his cultural casket, exposing its putrefying contents.
Chris Smith’s prime skill has been playing dodgems. In his media portfolio, all major decisions stem from Downing Street. He also kept his head down in sporting rucks, leaving the Home Secretary to deal with hooligans and the Prime Minister to campaign for the Olympics.
When the national stadium at Wembley, for which he signed off £120 million of Lottery money, was shown last winter to be so misconceived that it could not accommodate both track and team events, Smith carried the can in the Commons, apologising for £60 million that would never be recovered. However, his scholarly air contrasted so vividly with the sweaty enthusiasm of senior Cabinet colleagues that he escaped censure.
Only in cultural affairs has Dr Smith, with his Cambridge honours degree and Harvard scholarship, got stuck in and staked a position or two. In a manifesto published by Matthew Evans of Faber & Faber, later to become his museums “tsar”, Smith championed a Creative Britain energised by grunge art, pop music and catwalk chic. To appease dismayed sophisticates, he promised extra funding for traditional arts – providing they displayed a verifiable commitment to New Labour mantras of access, education and social inclusion. He used to list excellence among the conditions, but quality now seems to have dropped from the agenda.
To obtain compliance, Smith brought the Arts Council of England (ACE) to heel under the chairmanship of Granada’s Gerry Robinson, who needs New Labour’s approval for enlarging his media empire, and an executive largely made up of party hacks and BBC hand-me-downs. Eliminating any risk of ACE autonomy, Smith formed a “Quest” team in his department to monitor the ACE and, if necessary, replace it.
No one has yet seen a penny of the extra money that he promised, because the ACE is making them jump through hoops of political correctness before they reach the till. A dozen national orchestras, living on the breadline, are spending half a million pounds each on external consultants whose task is to produce a “stabilisation” grant application to meet Smith’s criteria.
Any thought of spending new money on better artists and instruments is ruled out as “elitist”. What the ACE wants to see is increased ethnic-minority quotients and nebulous internet schemes. Smith is himself the victim of New Labour dogma. Much as he likes to hear a good orchestra, and would hate to have it go bust, he cannot be caught spending money on what his party perceives as the leisure pursuits of a privileged middle class. The ACE has told him it will need £25 million to save regional theatres. Smith will grant the money, with strings attached.
Never in this country have the arts been so ruthlessly politicised and interfered with at every level. In recent weeks, two orchestral managers of proven competence have been fired, one at an hour’s notice. The ACE has denied involvement, although both managers had been bitterly resisting parts of its PC agenda.
Never, in my experience, have arts managers thought less about artistic planning and more about what the Government expects from them. Yet many continue to believe that Smith is on their side and will provide the means for an artistic renaissance.
These achievements should redound to Smith’s credit when the Cabinet reshuffle is finalised, but the true cost of his legacy will become apparent in the coming months, as performing standards degenerate and arts centres, such as the Lottery-built Arc at Stockton-on-Tees, stand empty for want of compelling attractions.
Culture under Chris Smith has been crippled by fear, shackled by want and clamped in a traction of political correctness. Unless the arts in Britain are allowed to breathe the free air of contrariness, they will become as dead as Bayreuth and Broadway. Smith has been, in the worst possible sense, the most effective of arts ministers. He must go now, before the arts are fatally asphyxiated.
30 March 2000: [UK News] Smith reneges on pledge for free museums
29 March 1999: [UK News] Culture minister scraps museum charges for children
How Smith Has Crippled Culture