Simon Barrow

Cultural politics: bread. circuses, sport or festivals?

By Simon Barrow
August 22, 2012

Domestic politicians have mostly been rather suspicious of ‘culture’, regarding it as some new fangled idea more at home in smoke-filled Parisian cafés on the Left Bank than in the consumer based high streets of Britain.

That has changed significantly in recent years. Ken Livingstone’s GLC set the pace in the 1980s. Inspired by the example of Red Bologna and the artistic populism of the Italian left, the People’s Ken offered bread, roses and circuses on the rates to solidify support even among those who doubted his ideological instincts.

When he returned as London Mayor (“as I was saying, before I was interrupted”, he jibed to the Thatcherites in his return speech) there was less ostentation but a continuing commitment to the politics of spectacle.

The Blairites decided that ‘culture and sport’ was a better bet than anything too exclusively arty. The Millennium Dome nearly sank their agenda in a sea of debt and scepticism, but the London Eye won people over. Now the Tories are playing to the same gallery, with Ken’s successor Boris Johnson plastering his voice and eccentric image across the Olympics in a possible bid for higher office.

Meanwhile, the assembly governments in Wales and Scotland, operating on terrain where national culture and (to an extent) language have a stronger claim on popular attention, are combating restrictions on other powers with strong appeals to public affection through cultural initiatives.

The Welsh government (“our aim is excellence in the arts and access for everybody”) has recently unveiled a five-year museums strategy, a portfolio to preserve industrial heritage, and a strategic development framework for libraries.

In Scotland, the SNP administration (“aiming to encourage participation in a diverse cultural life to bring real benefits for communities and individuals”) is keen to be seen to be investing in sport. It also set up Creative Scotland in 2010 to resource arts, cinema and other creative industries across the country.

The Scottish government has a similarly wide variety of investments in the summer Festival season. There are 15 festivals in Edinburgh each year, and an equal number on the West coast and elsewhere.

Among the places where public money is matching local and volunteer initiative is in the Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh, which features 400 dialogue and culture events across 21 venues. It started out as a church venture and has brought on board a wide range of faith and civic organisations, attracting many thousands of visitors and participants.

As government becomes more technocratic and anonymous, and as recession and financial chaos makes people angry and suspicious towards the political class, the need to be seen to be “where people are” and to shape public mood through cultural activity large and small is here to stay.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article first appeared in his regular politics column in Third Way, the Christian magazine of social and cultural commentary.

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