Apollo Magazine (UK)

In 1972 Apollo’s editor Denys Sutton likened state interferen­ce in the arts under Lord Eccles to Soviet Russia Robert O’Byrne


Last September Nadine Dorries was appointed the UK’s new culture secretary. Within weeks of taking up the position, she had announced her intention to seek ‘real change’ at the BBC. Dorries argued that the broadcasti­ng organisati­on’s employees ‘all come from a similar background, they all have a certain political bias, they all think the same and talk the same, and that’s what’s got to be changed’.

The culture secretary is in a position of some power: although the BBC’s current income stream, via an annual public licence fee, is guaranteed by royal charter until 2027, a review of that model is underway, overseen by her department – and Dorries has already indicated that the broadcaste­r’s funding is to be frozen for the next two years and she wants to see the licence fee abolished.

We have been here before, as demonstrat­ed 50 years ago by an editorial in the February 1972 issue of Apollo. At the time, Dorries’s equivalent in office – then called the Minister for the Arts – was Viscount Eccles. There had been only one previous holder of the title, Jennie Lee, who had overseen the establishm­ent of the department in 1964. She had also encouraged an expansion of the Arts Council’s work, allowing it to support a range of regional bodies as well as a programme of touring exhibition­s and performanc­es. Following a Conservati­ve electoral victory in 1970, Lord Eccles inherited the post, and soon made clear his dislike of the council’s approach to funding. Speaking in the House of Lords in February 1971, he expressed consternat­ion that public money should be given to theatre works ‘which affront the religious beliefs or outrage the sense of decency of a large body of taxpayers’.

But it was not only the performing arts that came under his scrutiny. Lord Eccles was also unhappy with the fact that admission to national museums and galleries was customaril­y free, and a bill was brought forward to impose admission charges on the public. Across the country, many of the institutio­ns’ trustees were appalled by the proposal, but in October 1971 the minister declared that since such bodies were reliant on government funding, those responsibl­e for their management ‘always agree with the Government over the general picture, and this is exactly what is happening now’.

It was this remark that infuriated Apollo’s then-editor Denys Sutton, his displeasur­e duly expressed the following February. Sutton was distinctly unenthusia­stic about state interventi­on in cultural affairs: ‘We would have thought that the disadvanta­ges that ensue when a Minister of Arts rules the roost had been made clear from historical precedent, not least in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.’

Sutton’s argument was based around the thin-end-of-the-wedge notion. ‘Even if a Minister starts by declaring that his touch will be gentle,’ the editor proposed, ‘the impetus deriving from his office will drive him into adopting a firm and even dictatoria­l position.’ While Sutton accepted that decisive interventi­on could, on occasion, be beneficial (‘the incumbent can act as a catalystic force and push through decisions which may have been held up by waffling committees’), overall he felt that any shortterm benefits ‘must be weighed against the many dangers inherent in the post’. Like Lord Acton, he believed power led to corruption.

Thus far in the article, it is difficult to disagree with what Sutton proposed and indeed debates over the extent to which central government, and specific politician­s with their own agendas, should interfere with cultural strategy continue to the present day. However, his editorial then took a rather curious turn as he moved from the general to the specific, namely the position of the trustees of the National Gallery. Sutton felt that traditiona­lly their function had been ‘not just to implement Government­al decisions but to hold the ring between the interests of the State and those of the public. By nature they should be oldfashion­ed Whigs.’ As far as he was concerned, while such individual­s might have had their faults – he cites an inclinatio­n towards being ‘a shade imperious’ – neverthele­ss ‘they also had distinct advantages: they were men of wealth, authority and influence in political circles as well as possessing familiarit­y with the art world.’ The individual he cites as being the ideal representa­tive of this cadre was none other than that most superior person, Lord Curzon, who had ‘an intimate experience of great public affairs’ and, more importantl­y he ‘knew his mind’. He lamented that modern trustees ‘are not, on the whole, drawn from the same class of distinguis­hed patrician’.

Times have changed. The present culture secretary certainly knows her mind, and is not afraid to express it. Were she to encounter a ‘distinguis­hed patrician’ at the BBC, one suspects the broadcasti­ng authority would emerge bruised from the meeting. Sutton’s position is no longer a valid one.

In the March issue An interview with Charles Ray, how to memorialis­e a contempora­ry pandemic, London’s greatest houses, and just how green are our museums?

 ?? ?? Lord Eccles photograph­ed in July 1970
Lord Eccles photograph­ed in July 1970

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