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Old Labour, New Labour

By Georgia de Chamberet

For independents committed to discovering and showcasing new voices—be they home-grown or from foreign climes—2008 looms as a year of reckoning.

In October 2007, Arts Council England's (ACE) popular and energetic literature director Gary McKeone, who greatly improved literature funding, was made redundant as part of a restructure, along with a swathe of colleagues. More blood was spilled in December as nearly 200 out of England's 990 publicly funded arts organisations were told their subsidies will be halved or cut completely, from April this year. The effects will be particularly damaging to literary translation. The British Council also recently announced cutbacks, in the shape of disbanding its individual art departments.

It is ironic that England's arts face such a lean future under a Labour government, since the Arts Council was a brainchild of the Labour government of 1964-70. The original idea was that the Government provides the money, and the Arts Council is the body that makes policy decisions on how best the money can be spent; National Government encourages local interest, but does not dictate.

Lord Goodman, the brilliant lawyer and political advisor to a generation of Labour politicians, was Chairman of the Arts Council 1965-72. In his autobiography, Tell Them I'm On My Way, published in 1993, he writes of the underlying ethos: "When I became chairman of the Arts Council, the Minister for the Arts was Jennie Lee and the Prime Minister was Harold Wilson. Neither of them claimed any great knowledge of the arts, but both held the firm political view that the promotion of the arts to procure a more civilised world and—a view about which there is now much disagreement—that the cost of its adequate promotion should fall on public funds."

Back to the future: both Dedalus Books and Arcadia Books (winner of the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) face potential closure as funding is slashed. Both publish a high proportion of books in translation. Eric Lane, Dedalus publisher, says: "19 European cultural institutions have formed partnerships with Dedalus to help it put British publishing at the heart of Europe. Why won't Arts Council England (ACE) join them in funding Dedalus?" Gary Pulsifer, MD of Arcadia, writes: "We believe that the cultural impact of the cut is disproportionate to the money saved by ACE. At a moment when the UK is assuming a leading role in the enlarged EU, it is hard to imagine a more important function for ACE than to ensure that the best of European literature continues to be available to British readers." As petitions circulate, Dedalus plans to sue ACE, and 2007 Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, along with over 500 literary luminaries, signed a support for Arcadia appeal letter to ACE. Lord Goodman firmly believed in encouraging translation, and wrote in the Times Literary Supplement (9 October, 1970): "One of the shortcomings, perhaps unavoidable in English commercial publishing, is the English version of important foreign books. A subsidy to help the unpromising commercial situation is appropriate and important."

These publishers are not alone. The Bush Theatre—one of the UK's most celebrated new writing theatres featuring contemporary voices from a wide range of backgrounds—is similarly threatened with oblivion.

Anthony Neilson, Sebastian Barry,

Stephen Poliakoff and numerous others found early success at the Bush.

The association between government and the arts is invariably uneasy. About the relationship between the Minister for the Arts and the Arts Council, Lord Goodman wrote: "When Harold Wilson came to power in 1964, theoretical objections had been raised to the appointing of a Minister because of the possibility of conflict between the two principal figures in the equation. This theoretical question did not arise while Jennie was my minister. She worked with me as a sort of super chairman. It was not necessary for us to define the respective functions of the Department and the Arts Council. She did not get in the way and did not allow her minions to get in the way. We therefore deceived ourselves that an arrangement empirically excellent was theoretically so. It required a situation where the two principal figures did not operate in sympathy, had divergent notions and divergent objectives, to demonstrate the difficulties of an Arts Council of present-day character operating under the canopy of a ministry. If the Arts Council operates as it should, it has no need of ministerial control and no means of conforming to it."

Pop Blair maybe have been succeeded by book-friendly Brown, but today's department for Culture, Media and Sport has still managed to deal a body blow to public funding of the arts. The department is looking to fill the funding gap for the 2012 Olympics. Its name seems at odds with its actions, as the balance is clearly tipping in favour of sport. Is England to become a nation of sportsmen with no culture?

As Clare Alexander recently commented: "It seems that the needs of literature are to be starved, presumably in the interest of sport. This is short-termism of the worst kind. We should be doing the opposite: planning a celebration of our rich literary culture to take place alongside the London 2012 Olympics."

Lord Goodman considered that: "Political control of artistic matters is unthinkable. Departments are calculated to interfere, in the ultimate analogy, with real freedom of thought." The times they are a-changin….

Published Jan 18, 2008   Copyright 2008 Georgia de Chamberet

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