There is a danger if the arena for artistic performance is permitted to become too centralised, with the regions required to focus upon what is going on within the capital city to discover the potential of their own individualistic excellence. The situation will become healthier if we can revive the notion of there being a thriving local culture within each region, proud of its own traditions, and of its aesthetic potential.
Government should therefore assume the responsibility to promote the re-emergence of the English regions, so that they are encouraged to create their own local artistic excellence in distinction from one another, and in competition with one another to draw the maximum number of tourists to come and be entertained in the significant regional manner. But this should involve the creation of regional assemblies, whose main purpose will be to tailor the quality of life within that territory, so that its true individualism can be perceived for what it best might become…
Then finally there is the question of improved display: a display at sites of easy access for the region as a whole. It should not be necessary for an aspirant artist to visit the capital city to discover the inspiration for his native art. The finest collections should be on his very doorstep. And the regional assemblies should be in a position to allot funds to transform existing museums so that they can fulfil this required function – funds which should also be used to put on arts festivals where the special character of the region can be publicly proclaimed.
The artistic potential of the nation is thus indirectly linked to the Government’s ability to enable the English regions to re-emerge in a spirit of their most colourful individualism. So the most significant step which government could take today, in the encouragement of the arts, will be in the creation of our regional assemblies; and I urge that this step should be taken without delay.”
Alexander Thynn, Marquess of Bath, addressing the House of Lords, 18th March 1998
Not a lot to ask, you might think. After all, the provincial cities of Germany and Italy are cultural powerhouses, attracting tourists in their millions. In contrast to France or Spain, theirs is the legacy of not being unified politically until late in the 19th century and so continuing to benefit from particularistic patronage. In England, sadly, few listened to our founder’s words, and today the curtain is coming down on culture in the provinces.
Nowhere more so than in Northumbria. Last month, we drew attention to a spate of museum closures in Lancashire, contrasted with continued spending on a vacuous vanity project designed to really ‘put London on the map’. Lancashire is not alone. Across the Pennines, Bradford’s National Media Museum is facing the asset-stripping of its photographic collection, to be removed to London. Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg has spoken out on radio against the closure of small museums. In Co Durham, closures planned, threatened or implemented include the Durham Light Infantry Museum at Durham, the Monkwearmouth Station Museum at Sunderland and Bede’s World at Jarrow. The last of these was an ambitious project to regenerate the town through tourism. A new museum was built to re-interpret the Golden Age of Northumbria for today, complete with a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon settlement in the grounds. Whatever that blighted area has been promised to make up for jobs lost in heavy industry – whether it was to be call centres, hi-tech manufacturing, retailing or tourism – has been promptly ripped from beneath its feet. It’s now being robbed of the means to understand itself. ‘History’ will be owned by the victors of one inter-regional power struggle, making another that much less likely to succeed.
Identity is inseparable from continuity: a place without a past lacks the materials from which to build its own future with confidence. According to Historic England, 64% of folk in England value their local heritage. Breaking this average down by Prescott zone, we find the figure rises to 71% in the North East, 69% in the South West and 68% in both London and the South East. Four of the five below-average zones are where the Danelaw used to be. Coincidence? Maybe, but the fact is that where Alfred was acknowledged as overlord there was continuity of government and a physical survival of heritage on a scale that wasn’t true of Viking-devastated areas. You value more where there’s more to value.
Wessex hasn’t been exempt from closures. Bristol’s award-winning Empire & Commonwealth Museum, housed in Brunel’s original terminus at Temple Meads, was closed in 2008. This was done with the specific intention of re-locating the collection to London, where, of course, ‘more people can see it’. The logic is unassailable, at least for those too lazy to get a train to Bristol and walk a hundred yards. Fortunately, the deal fell through. Most of the collection was donated to the city of Bristol. But the museum never re-opened.
Wessex hasn’t been exempt from closures. Scotland and Wales have a choice. Their national museums and galleries are devolved matters and they have devolved administrations to defend them. We suffer from the affliction that is England, not the England of us all that values all, but the one-size-fits-all England that in practice means London. All the key decisions are taken in London by those who live, work and play in London, who can grasp no other perspective and who feel deeply offended by the idea that one can even exist. And, as Simon Jenkins pointed out last week, BIG projects are protected while it’s the little folk who suffer.
It might be argued that, in times of austerity, culture should take a back seat. We don’t need to argue back that austerity is a posh word for corporate bailouts and tax evasion on an unimaginable scale. Even if austerity had a credible justification, it would still be unfair that we’re not exempt from it but London is. Loss-making museums in the provinces are being shut. Throwing them a lifeline would be subsidising failure, we’re told. Yet as taxpayers we all pay to keep London’s ‘national’ museums and galleries free to visit. Even though there are national museums in Wessex that are not. (For example, both the National Army Museum and the RAF Museum in London are free, but not Portsmouth’s National Museum of the Royal Navy. How fair is that?) Free admission to London’s attractions is somehow considered a service to the whole nation. We’re even treated to patronising half-truths: “Arts Council funding for museums is lower per capita in London and the South East than in any other part of the country.” We should hope so, given the millions London’s national museums receive as direct funding that bypasses the Arts Council pot. How can there ever be a level playing field when money for London’s pets is top-sliced and the rest are left to fight over the crumbs?
Shouldn’t we expect this? Isn’t being kicked and punched by the London regime part of being English? Mustn’t grumble, must we? Up north, regionalisation has been an on-off issue for over a century. That’s a century in which to organise a political party to achieve real, lasting change. A century of votes cast instead for the monkey with the red rosette. And we’ve been as bad, even if our monkey’s rosette is blue, or sometimes yellow. He or she is still more interested in a career in a London-obsessed system than in defying convention on our behalf.
Recent media coverage has been sure to present the museums story as one aspect of a north-south divide. That’s a convenient narrative that can be played around with, baiting northerners about deprivation in pockets of inner London being just as bad. It’s a narrative that actually helps to obscure something much deeper – the London-rest divide that no amount of ‘benign’ centralism or ‘socialist’ redistribution will touch.
It’s inevitable then. Let’s move on to the ‘real’ issues instead. No, it isn’t inevitable. When Northumbria and Wessex strode the stage, London was on the periphery of events: Frank Musgrove’s The North of England: A History identifies no fewer than four eras of northern pre-eminence. History reminds us that there are alternatives. That’s why the teaching of history is being so heavily discouraged.
Richard Carter, Leader of Yorkshire First, commented on the museum closures as follows: "We are not against a strong capital, but this has to change, for the good of the country and for London too." We’d go further. The capital’s strength is both the cause and the effect of our weakness as it recirculates across the generations. If London disappeared into a vast sink-hole tomorrow, Boris and all, we’d get by well enough without it. There comes a point when patience with pretty promises from on high should no longer be judged a virtue.