Composite: Roos Koole/Getty, Westend61/Getty

The Conservatives can still reform our cultural institutions

The Tories should cut the Blob down to size before Keir Starmer comes to power

Artillery Row

The Conservatives have spent months — and three Prime Ministers — trailing behind Labour in the polls. Like a glacier, imperceptibly yet inexorably bearing down on a mountain village, electoral catastrophe approaches

It may be too late for Tories to save themselves. But can they still save our institutions?

Under the last decade and a half of Conservative government, progressive ideology has achieved widespread institutional capture. Britain’s institutions are now beset by wokery, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Britain’s museums. The latest example of this is the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which will now warn visitors against pictures of “rolling English hills”. According to The Telegraph:

In a gallery displaying a bucolic work by Constable, visitors are informed that ‘there is a darker side’ to the ‘nationalist feeling’ evoked by images of the British countryside. It states that this national sentiment comes with ‘the implication that only those with a historical tie to the land have a right to belong.

As I explained in a recent article, Arts Council England is now incentivising this kind of oikophobic rubbish like this with taxpayer’s money.

In 2021-22, the Fitzwilliam received £1.5m in state funding; that was after its Arts Council funding was cut from £1.2m to £637,000. In an interview with Apollo, Syson said he believed this was because “ACE was concerned that the Fitzwilliam hadn’t fulfilled its targets of diversifying the audience”. 

This is an understandable concern; Nicholas Serota, the chairman of ACE, has previously threatened to cut funding over a lack of diversity. Responding to a report that museums have the lowest proportion of workers from black and ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds in the arts, he said: “organisations that receive regular investment from the arts council will need to set themselves stretching targets for representation in governance, leadership, workforce, participants and audiences. Failure to meet these targets will have an impact on future funding.”

In 2020, the ACE-funded Museum Development England tendered for a plan to “decolonise” museums, and in 2018 stated: “This year for the first time, museums have also been required to evidence how they are contributing to making the Creative Case for Diversity.” The advancement of identity politics through DEI is now essential to accessing ACE’s funding streams, as artist and writer Alexander Adams has described:

Grants are now given on the understanding that there is a duty to promote “marginalised” creators (and serve “marginalised” audiences), judged by race, sexual orientation and so forth … It is no longer permissible for recipient venues to programme and recruit solely on merit; instead, identity politics is integrated into policy and management, upon forfeiture of funding.

As part of new guidance, the Arts Council has stated it “will not remove or refuse funding to an organisation or an individual purely because they make work that is political.” This was after artists criticised the body for warning that “activity that might be considered overtly political and activist and goes beyond your company’s core purpose and partnerships with organisations that might be perceived as being in conflict with the purposes of public funding of culture”.

This was criticised as a measure to limit the freedom of expression of artists to make political statements. But, in fact, that is exactly what ACE’s current funding structure does.

ACE is the biggest arts funding source in the UK. Its 2023-2026 settlement invested £445m each year in 985 organisations (over 80 per cent of which comes directly from taxpayers) and so dominates arts funding that it can be considered a government monopoly — especially as government sets the rules for funding. But it is geared in favour of the advancement of identity politics, and in favour of funding artistic DEI ventures of dubious value.

Winning back the independence of our institutions must become a vital conservative goal, and we must be both clear in the mind and cold in the heart as to why it matters. 

Institutions are important to conservatives because, as James Vitali writes, “Conservatism is and must be more than an antipathy to change. It is distinct from mere ‘orthodoxy’ — it defends certain customs, institutions or arrangements for a reason, not simply because they exist.” 

Institutions provide an underpinning of what Michael Sandel called “our common life” by providing a sense of belonging that unites us. My local institutions — NYC, Wensleydale Rugby Club, my local pubs — provide me with a meaningful sense of what it means to be a member of my immediate community. But national institutions — such as museums — provide us with a meaningful sense of what it means to be a member of our national community.

National institutions like museums are therefore important because they act as stores of inherited common knowledge of what it means to be meaningfully British.

The progressives who now hold power in these institutions hold what Thomas Sowell described in his book A Conflict of Visions as “an unconstrained vision”. They therefore believe that they can best contribute to society by “shaping the best outcomes in particular issues that come within their jurisdiction”. But conservatives — who mostly hold a “constrained vision” — believe the inherent limitations of individuals mean the best contribution to society an individual can make is to adhere to the special duties of their institutional role and let the systemic processes, which have served previous generations well enough, determine outcomes. 

Allowing liberal progressives to weaponise institutions in the service of today’s political fights places them in immense danger by eroding public trust; Roger Scruton argued that institutions can only be legitimised in citizens’ eyes and become effective if they are rooted in pre-political loyalty. That is not limited to party politics but to politics of any kind, because it no longer offers a sense of belonging to a segment of the population based on their politics.

One might ask, what power does a dying government have? But even wounded lions are still lions, and the moment strikes us well; last week a review was launched into the Arts Council, chaired by Dame Mary Archer, as part of the Cabinet Office’s cross-government public body reviews programme. The first review of ACE since 2017, it will focus on finding savings of 5 per cent, and assessing if ACE funding is, as Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said, “driving creative excellence in the arts by funding ambitious projects of the highest quality.”

If we are to tackle this, it is essential it be done before Keir Starmer takes power. As I have previously written in these most august pages; “Starmer plans to pay no attention to the notional neutrality of our institutions, and will give the Blob free reign whilst using the power of the state to entrench the progressive woke ideology it promulgates.”

That is why I have written to the Minister for Common Sense, Esther McVey, arguing that it is essential that this review should be expanded to include how ACE advances a political agenda with taxpayer money. For too long, Conservatives have griped about “wokeness” without addressing its institutional roots. But the time for grouchy impotence has passed, and the neutrality of these institutions must be enforced; the choice between political causes and public funding must be forced onto the arts sector. The invisible hand is sometimes an iron fist. 

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