Freedom of non-speech

Huge sigh of relief for John Kampfner and his Creative Industries Federation team over the Cabinet reshuffle.

He could have lost all of his speakers line-up for the Fed’s third annual birthday celebrations this week at a stroke – Greg Clark, the business secretary, would have lost his job if Jeremy Hunt had co-operated, Matt Hancock could have been shifted from DCMS along with his boss, and Tom Watson, Labour’s culture spokesman, could also have been shifted in response to changes to his opposite number. The ill-advisability of relying on politicians, John.

So in the event the Fed’s Google-sponsored do, this time in the Natural History Museum’s main hall, had its cast of speakers intact, with Hancock originally programmed as Minister of State stepping up as Secretary of State. As Watson remarked, a little slyly, the Fed is obviously held in very high regard indeed in Downing Street if Mrs May dared not interfere with its plans.

And in the event, they felt free to say… absolutely nothing. Greg Clark tried to look culturally aware by saying he wanted to quote from his favourite maker of musicals Stephen Sondheim, and someone helpfully suggested “Send in the Clowns” (they were on their way, because this was also the occasion for the launch of the 250th anniversary of circus led by AI’s very own Dea Birkett, the Circus250 Ringmaster, with a series of acts whose sure-footedness Cabinet ministers can these days only dream of). Last year Clark had been able to be expansively supportive, declaring - controversially, it seemed at the time - that the creative industries would be at the heart of the industrial strategy he was crafting, and this time all he could offer was “What I said before”. And Hancock, the new boy to the Cabinet and a former software retailer turned economist, suggested “Across the length and breadth of Britain, the power of culture and creativity is bringing people together like never before”. I think we knew that. Unlike the situation of a year ago they were constrained by the Brexit bromide from saying anything that could be interpreted as imposing a commitment on David Davis’s negotiations.

Because the big issue for the Fed is what Brexit will mean to the movement of artists and arts organisations, the safety of European nationals working here in the creative sector and the continued access of our arts organisations to European cultural funding, so often a lifeline to UK creative enterprises.

It was left to Watson, in the freedom of opposition, to say what everyone in the room was thinking: we need the government’s assurance that Britain will not be culturally isolated by Brexit, and to be clear about the implications on what is the fastest growing sector in the British economy, worth, as Hancock reminded us, almost £100bn a year to us.

SIXTEEN or so years ago the Natural History Museum was one of the national museums dead against the idea of free admission, and it was imposed on them. It’s not complaining now. The result has been a transformation of visitors to museums, not just the nationals, and of the public status of museums that now are part of all our communities, local to national. Now the argument is back, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum in New York deciding to impose a $25 fee on non-New Yorker visitors. The NHM’s argument in 2001 was that paying would make museum-goers value their visit more. Instead, the museums have had to address the volumes of extra visitors by being more responsive to their needs and abandoning the old patronising attitude, so people do value the treasures they can see for free more than could before.

But the museums do need more funds in this tiresomely eternal austerity, and the solution has been suggested by this column before – something, incidentally, that seems to work extremely well in Europe: a hotel tax, in which all bookings in London hotels have a 1% hotel tax added to the bill, and the extra money is hypothecated to our museums and galleries. Enough of this mania for closing things to people.

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