3rd Year Week 8 TT06


Why it’s time for politicians to be poets

BRITISH politicians are too scared of culture, appear desperate to jump on the bandwagon of popular culture and too rarely speak candidly about modern art, opera or plays, according to a critical report published today.

Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy, a study by the think-tank Demos, calls for politicians to show their support for British culture by “publicly embracing” artistic pursuits.


It recommends that Tony Blair could start by following his opposite number in France, Dominique de Villepin, in writing and publishing poetry, and says that British politicians are shamed by their counterparts in Europe.

M Villepin has written several collections of poetry, as well as a prize-winning biography of Napoleon and essays on France with titles such as The Cry of the Gargoyle. He also collects African and Asian art.

On becoming Prime Minister, he observed that “a single verse by Rimbaud shines like a powder trail on a day’s horizon. It sets it ablaze all at once, explodes all limits, draws the eyes to other heavens.”

John Holden, the report’s author and head of culture at Demos, suggests that culture on this side of the Channel would benefit if the British Prime Minister followed suit, although it has been said that the idea of Mr Blair writing anything more poetic than some pop lyrics is difficult to imagine.

Mr Holden says that the party leaders’ ideas of culture is somewhat limited: “Tony Blair likes post-Nirvana outfit the Foo Fighters and ironic glam-rockers The Darkness, and infamously claims to support Newcastle United. David Cameron prefers the Killers, and says that Cheryl Tweedy is his favourite member of Girls Aloud.”

The report, which was supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, states: “We argue that politicians are too timid about showing their passion for the arts, undermining British arts and leaving cultural institutions open to attack from the tabloid press.”

It concludes that too many senior politicians, “fearful of tabloid negativity”, avoid public association with culture at a time when the evidence points to increasing public engagement with and enthusiasm for the arts. It applauds the example set by Kim Howells, the former Culture Minister, who in 2002 dismissed the Turner Prize entrants as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit”.

“At least he was willing to state his opinion,” Mr Holden said. “Politicians should show more leadership in their engagement and enjoyment of culture.They should be seen at performances, express their preferences, and talk to the media about their enthusiasms.”

Mr Holden said: “If the Prime Minister was to write poetry or paint, or at the very least show his face in galleries and concert halls, it would send a powerful message of support for the cultural sector in the UK.”

The report also laments that Government funding of culture, whether at national or local level, is not accepted in politics as a public good in the same way that health or education, for example. “Until politicians understand what the public values about culture, and until cultural professionals create and articulate that demand, culture will always remain vulnerable to indifference or attack,” it says.

The report adds: “Politicians often talk in terms of delivery . . . free entry to museums, new lottery-funded buildings, more children engaging in culture. These are all significant achievements, but they miss the point . . . messages about spending more, increased delivery . . . tell us nothing about