The country deserves a coherent, government-wide policy for culture, says John Holden, it’s time once again to learn from the Australians
Last November I visited Australia and the arts community was buzzing with talk about the country’s proposed new cultural policy. So I took a look at the discussion document and I turned green with envy – why can’t we have one of these in the UK?
In Britain we’ve never been good at framing a coherent approach to culture. Back in 1996 a senior civil servant at the Department for National Heritage told the Sunday Times: "It is not part of our culture to think in terms of a cultural policy," and not much has changed.
The Australian example shows what can be done. It’s a remarkable and mercifully brief document that has many virtues.
First, it sets out the beliefs on which any serious cultural policy must be founded: "The arts and creative industries are fundamental to Australia’s identity as a society and nation, and increasingly to our success as a national economy." It adds that "the policy will be based on an understanding that a creative nation produces a more inclusive society and a more expressive and confident citizenry."
Everything that follows in the document is built on this bedrock of ideology. Without such clear and transparent beliefs, and the commitment that flows from them, policies are doomed to endless wrangling about measurement and evidence.
But the document does acknowledge evidence where it exists, and uses it wisely. For example: "Research shows that arts education encourages academic achievement and improves students’ self-esteem, leading to more positive engagement with school and the broader community and higher school retention rates" – therefore "the new national curriculum will ensure that young Australians have access to learning in the creative arts."
But in the UK we have to suffer the non-evidence based approach of abolishing what went before just because the other lot invented it.
The next virtue is that the proposed policy not only encompasses the arts, heritage and creative industries, but extends into other areas like education and infrastructure. Culture is deemed relevant to every department of government, from the role that it plays in international relations (British Foreign and Commonwealth Office) to its economic importance (HM Treasury), from its impact on the need to build airports for cultural tourists (Department for Communities and Local Goverment) to cultural scholarship in Higher Education (Department for Education).
That relevance is a two-way street: for example, the cultural uses of high speed broadband affect hard infrastructural requirements, while the existence of the hardware creates cultural opportunities.
But with our inheritance of initative-itis and dysfunctional 19th century silos in Whitehall, our treatment of culture within government is confused and contradictory. It needs pulling together into a consistent and logical whole, which is just what the Australian cultural policy is designed to do.
One interesting thing about this Australian initiative is its timing. Down under they are not afflicted by the global financial malaise to the same extent that we are, but they are clearly looking to the future, and asking where societies and economies are going.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the UK’s Plan A and Plan B, it should be obvious that we need more than hope and excuses to reinvigorate ourselves. We need a long-term economic strategy that recognizes the important part that culture and creativity play. With the cultural and creative economy now accounting for such a large proportion of Britain’s GDP, you would think that some serious consideration would be given to cultural policy right across the piece, rather than following the traditional fractured approach.
The proposed Australian cultural policy takes things in the right order: start with ideology and belief in making the case for culture; gather the evidence where you have it; work out a 10 year integrated strategy across government; decide on the consequent structures and funding needs; adjust according to circumstances.
In the UK we seem to have things topsy-turvy: first the treasury decides how much money there is; then government departments fight among themselves for how much they each get; they decide their own individual priorities; they hand out money; evidence is gathered by the recipients of that money to prove the cash wasn’t wasted. There is no clear political articulation or acceptance of the case for culture at any level.
Those with long memories will recall that the impetus for much of the increased funding, energy and new thinking about culture and the creative industries that we saw in the UK at the end of the 1990s was prompted by an Australian policy paper. Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1994 document, Creative Nation had a profound influence here. It is time once again to learn from the Australians. This country also needs and deserves a coherent, government-wide policy for culture.
John Holden is associate at independent think tank Demos – he is also a visiting professor at City University in London.
Source : theguardian