TAITMAIL Our culture? It’s behind you…

“Oh no it isn’t!” exclaimed the headline on the DCMS press release, choosing the Christmas silly season to release news that panto could now be recognised as an official British custom by the United Nations.

More accurately it should have read “Oh yes it is!”, the British pantomime (actually not essentially a British tradition, born as it was in the Italian tradition of Commedia del Arte) is likely to be recognised as a tangible part of our culture, who we are. But that would perhaps be a bit stuffy for a story that need not be taken very seriously, the news being released on jolly December 23
 
But it is serious. The actual announcement from the government is that it is to ratify the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (CSICH), a development from the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And intangible as opposed to built heritage.
 
For context, the UDHR (of which the CSICH is a non-binding part that the UK has now decided to be bound to) was the UN’s post-war response to the evidence the world was waking up to human abomination committed around the world during and before the Second World War. It was written 75 years ago in 30 articles that outlined our rights and freedoms as humans to asylum, freedom from torture, education, free speech, social security, liberty, health and life itself. It’s the declaration (to which the UK is one of the original signatories) that at least two recent home secretaries have sought to withdraw from because it would interfere with their immigration policies, policies condemned, incidentally, by the UN’s human rights chief Volker Turk. 
 
But the issue is the bit of UDHR the government has now decided it can ratify.  The CSICH was added in 2003 to recognise “the common concern to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. Traditions, the culture minister Lord Parkinson tells us, are “central to the rich tapestry that makes up the UK’s many cultures and identity”. Such as panto, says DCMS, but also calligraphy, thatching, sea shanties, weaving, carol singing and, something I wouldn’t have put down  as part of the intangible cultural heritage, wreath-making (image here courtesy of Bunch Florist). Notably, it recognises cultural tradition introduced by immigrant communities, such as steel pan and the Notting Hill Carnival.
 
And if that is not thrilling enough, you can get to propose what you think is part of your cultural heritage, or at least your community can because Lord P has launched a “public consultation” to get our views on how to implement the convention and how you can nominate what might be a new tradition.
 
The government wants “to start a conversation” about intangible cultural heritage to help identify, recognise, value and safeguard it, and because it’s ratifying the convention without actually knowing what constitutes intangible heritage, it’s asking you. Why? A genuine wish to make ordinary people aware of their community heritage? A need to divert us from other less warming news? Part of levelling up without the cash? A will to emphasise our national personalities? “These crafts, customs, and celebrations have helped to shape our communities and bring people together, who continue to shape them in turn” Lord P explains. “By ratifying this convention we will be able to celebrate treasured traditions from every corner of the UK, support the people who practise them, and ensure they are passed down for future generations to enjoy”. You have until the end of February to get your tradition in.


But after the public consultation, who decides which will be recognised and which won’t? That will be part of the public consultation too, but it probably won’t be Stephen Parkinson, whose background is as a Conservative Party researcher turned lobbyist who was an apparatchik in Mrs May’s Downing Street and made a peer in her resignation honours list. He was given his present job when Rishi Sunak became prime minister.
 
Who is eligible to represent their community is also not clear, or how they will submit their recommendations, or who will winkle out mischievous submissions. What would you put forward? Maybe conker fighting, parkouring (how many participants makes an activity traditional, and how old does it have to be?); cheese-rolling, cock-fighting, quidditch, protest demonstrating, bare-knuckle boxing, morris dancing, shuffleboard…?
 
The aim is to recognise the chosen traditions to preserve them for generations to come, but how? There’s no mention of money here in the way that the listing of properties by Historic England can make them eligible for grants; no mention of any financial support from UNESCO. DCMS envisions creating a committee to explore the whole thing, including how safeguarding intangible culture would actually be done. In fact there’ll be no equivalent list - there is a UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage but HMG won’t be nominating any additions to it, a process which would be never ending as new traditions get nominated. So not a long term commitment then.

You can join the consultation at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.., but why bother? Surely, we as participants know whatever our traditional intangible pursuits might be, and as far as they are legal will continue to celebrate them without the permission of a departmental committee. Why would, say, crown green bowling have to be officially endorsed as, by implication, a human right? And if there has to be endorsement, surely it should be at community level, not handed down grandly from Whitehall. So devolved to the recharged, re-endowed, re-loved local authorities which, with support from a new government, will be – where? “Behind you!”
 

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