By Roger Scruton.
Nobody knows what a cultural policy should aim at, what means it should use, or how it could lead to legislation or other political initiatives. Hence, in Conservative Party thinking, considerations of culture remain on the margins. Worse, as in so many areas of political life, the Conservatives seem to have abandoned this fertile territory to the Left. Here is an instance of which I have some knowledge: the Arts Council has refused to provide funding to the English Music Festival, an initiative devoted to one of the greatest and least explored legacies of our national culture. The Council objects to the word ‘English’, and to all that it means by way of settled loyalties, old-fashioned decencies, and the love of our country and its past. For the arts establishment culture should be anti-national, disruptive, part of the ‘labour of the negative’ that I described in a previous contribution to this blog. My attempts to get conservative politicians, including the Minister for Culture and the Chairman of the House of Commons Cultural Committee, to take up this cause have been greeted with silence. Who cares about Granville Bantock, Arnold Bax or Ivor Gurney, and what have they got to do with GDP, RPI, VAT, or any other collection of letters that the government cites in the place of a philosophy?
This neglect of culture is a mistake, and here are three reasons why:
- Conservatives are, at their best, rounded human beings, who are attached to forms of life and practices which might reasonably be described as cultural: they tend to believe in family values and the rewards of family life, and to have a love of literature, art, music and natural beauty. Their tastes vary, but they gravitate towards the serious and the enduring, and indeed it is their sense of the seriousness of human life that turns them in a conservative direction. It disheartens them to think that there is nothing to conservatism except the bits that can be transcribed as economic policy, and they would be comforted by the spectacle of a party endorsing the cultural values that they share.
- Policies towards culture may be futile; but policies influenced by culture issue all the time. And when the culture is trivial or ideological the policies can be very destructive – as we have seen in education, multiculturalism, and the rise of the leftist thought police. To be confident in one’s cultural base is therefore a prerequisite for making firm and durable political decisions.
- It is good for the image of conservatism that it should not be caricatured as a business consortium or a neo-liberal conspiracy. It should be seen also to be tentatively exploring the deeper issues, and making reasonable but non-belligerent contributions to the debates that occupy intelligent people today: for instance, religion and atheism, social media, pop culture, the fate of real music, architecture and the city.
Alas, however: what Oakeshott called ‘the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind’ is rarely heard by those whom we elect to Parliament. And we surely cannot blame this entirely on Nick Clegg.