I am looking forward to the RSA AGM this evening and to hosting a speech by Vikki Heywood our chair of Trustees. In it Vikki makes interesting points about the value of arts, culture and heritage but she also develops a challenge for the sector, one which chimes with some of my past posts.
In essence Vikki calls on the arts community not just to reach out and engage beyond traditional cultural consumers but to get involved in providing a distinctive contribution to leadership and problem solving in wider society.
The BBC survey published this morning may suggest that the cuts have not had as deep an impact on people’s experience of public services but it notable that the areas where there is the greatest discontent are ones which lie with councils namely social care and local road maintenance. (By the way the fact that cuts have been well managed so far is no guide to what will happen in the future; losing unnecessary flab is a good thing, going below your appropriate body weight is another, while having to start lopping off parts of your body is different entirely).
The best local authorities know they need a step change in collaboration, public engagement and innovation; these are all capacities that the best arts and heritage organisations have in spades. Instead of arts and heritage funding being part of the problem of austerity, cultural organisations can be part of honing new solutions. Vikki goes further, for example, asking why so few artists it on the boards of corporations. And she recognises that bringing the artistic imagination into the heart of economic and social leadership will require the non-arts establishment to be willing to listen differently and the arts community to develop the grounding in the key challenges that places and organisations face.
For fear of stealing her thunder I won’t say more about the speech- which is being live-cast on the RSA website but here – to whet your appetite – are a few extracts
As artists, if we are to be valued, we need to shed considerably more daylight on the role we play. And I would suggest that we are as much to blame as anyone for the fact that we are not “seen”. We are not on the boards of business, retail, or banks, we are not governors of schools, sitting on planning committees, local enterprise partnerships, regional plans, “we” don’t stand as councilors, “we” don’t stand as MP’s, “we” don’t become the secretary of State for the Arts, “we” don’t become Prime Minister. “We” are not formally engaged in consultations over planning policy, educational policy, health, transport, law and order.
‘This is not about policy change this is about behavioral change – BY ARTISTS working with national and local authorities, with business and educationalists to recognise and increase how cultural contribution can enrich society and enhance our cultural identity.
‘How can rhetorical commitments to new forms of leadership, innovative practice and generous collaboration turn into something real? This is where arts organisations and artists can come in. Their ethos, their method, their creativity can act as the catalyst for new ways of being and thinking.
‘The question thus changes: instead of ‘how can we persuade the government and the public to protect the arts in tough times?’ it becomes ‘how can arts and heritage organisations be prime movers in enabling places not only to survive but to prosper in these difficult times?’ For arts organisations and artists to make this offer and make it credibly they will need to examine their own ways of working. They will in essence need to see themselves as commissioned by the places, in which they are based, a concept which, if taken seriously, is complex and challenging.
’Art for its own sake sought to place art beyond value, beyond the messiness of the market and everyday life. But in our age of course no activity is beyond the reach of value and we must ask again what is the real and irreducible value of the arts in our lives, our culture and make sure we play our part in the wellbeing of society as a whole.
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, Uncategorized
A lively argument on the Today programme (at 30 minutes) offered a fascinating example of cultural theory.
Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for a school of thought which labours under the unhelpfully vague title ‘cultural theory’. I offered my own interpretation of the theory in my annual lecture last year, as well as applying it to key challenges facing modern Britain. To recap in the briefest of ways, the theory identifies four ways of thinking about and approaching complex organisational or social change: the hierarchical perspective (think leadership, strategy, bureaucracy), the solidaristic (think tribe, values, community), the individualistic (think acquisitiveness, markets, enterprise) and the fatalistic (think apathy, scepticism).
The theory goes on to argue that the best (‘clumsy’) solutions combine the first three – active – modes (whilst recognising the ubiquity of fatalism) but that these are always difficult to create and sustain because each perspective gains much of its legitimacy and energy from its critique of the others.
There are lots of interesting implications and applications of the theory, many of which I have written about over the years. The Today programme item brought alive an example of what happens when the different ways of thinking are aligned in a particular way.
The debate was over Greenpeace’s continuing opposition to all forms of Genetically Modified food, and in particular, ‘golden rice’. The crop holds out the possibility of major advances against the scourge of vitamin A deficiency, which every year costs the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor people in the developing world and the sight of hundreds of thousands more.
Presenter James Naughtie chaired a very lively debate between two environmentalists, both with strong and impressive records of research and activism. On one side was Mark Lynas arguing against the Greenpeace line, on the other was Dr Tony Juniper defending opposition to GM.
At the end of the debate Naughtie said ‘well, that has given us a very clear picture of where the dividing line is!’
So it had – but not just of the issue itself. Also on display was a classic confrontation between cultural paradigms.
The ‘Allow Golden Rice Now’ campaign which Lynas was promoting is a combination of the hierarchical case (a big solution backed by scientific experts and deliverable by bureaucracies) and the individualistic one (solving problems through markets and technological innovation). These two perspectives are ranged against a solidaristic critique, suspicious of big business, hostile to top down solutions and instead emphasising the need to change power structures and promote different values and behaviours amongst both power holders and subsistence farmers.
The structure of the debate was Lynas on the attack and Juniper on the defence, which reflected the two-against-one balance of the debate. Because many of us feel guilty about our lack of action on the environment (and due to a generally misplaced tendency to trust NGOs more than Government or big business) we are inclined to defer to Greenpeace on environmental issues but here were the other perspectives seeing they at last had their chance to kick back.
Listening again to the debate I formed some tentative conclusions:
It is rare to hear the different perspectives so clearly aligned in alliance and opposition – that’s why the debate was so fascinating – but such differences can often be discerned in more opaque debates.
The divides between cultural perspectives receive much less attention than more obvious ones (which often overlay them) – such as left versus right – but they can be more important in explaining why the right (‘clumsy’) solution isn’t found and wrong (‘elegant’) ones promoted.
When there is such a clear alignment of two against one (and many traditionally solidaristic voices in this space don’t agree with Greenpeace) the one is likely to lose. If I were Greenpeace I would be planning an elegant retreat from this particular battle.
And – if the NGO does change its stance - progressive advocates of Golden Rice wanting to introduce the crop while avoiding the dangers of farmers being dependent on big business, or technology being used as an excuse not to address issues of power and engagement, could do a lot worse than getting the advice of Greenpeace: thus a ‘clumsy solution’.
A number of media commentators (for example, Danny Finkelstein today in the Times) have observed that conference season seems to be about promises not challenges. Although Nick Clegg has little but more pain to offer his Party, Labour and Conservative politicians have generally plumped for a crowd-pleasing attitude to both their party faithful and the half-listening public.
Speeches have adopted the reassuring tone of self-certainty and disdain for opponents while free school lunches, tax breaks for spouses, energy and fuel tax freezes have been among the examples of the largesse on offer to voters. There is an inverse relationship between specificity and sacrifice – the promises are concrete while the sense that there is still tough stuff ahead is vaguely asserted with the implication that the pain will fall only on the undeserved (whether they be energy company fat cats or the long term unemployed).
Yet, any objective observer of the position of the UK would say that in both the short and longer term citizens will have to make demanding adaptations if we are to meet challenges such as global competition, austerity, population ageing and climate change.
The argument of my RSA annual lecture in 2007 – that we face a widening gap between the aspirations we have for a better society and the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and acting place us – is, if anything, more obvious today than six years ago.
Its pointless blaming the individuals: Political insecurity, electoral competition and public exhaustion are key factors at work in this retreat to populism. All the party leaders have become used to questions hanging over their own leadership and their Party’s prospects at the next election. They simply lack the authority to challenge their Party. With some justification each party thinks it will lose out if it doesn’t offer the voters the best bag of goodies. Meanwhile the public’s tolerance for bad news has been eroded by years of economic gloom and falling living standards.
It is very easy to be pious and superior when judging politicians. As a failed Prime Ministerial speech writer I am only too aware of how hard it is to translate rigour and subtlety into a viable and engaging political message. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be deeply underwhelmed by the tone of this conference season.
There has been the lack of a credible story about the longer term challenges and choices facing Britain. Thatcher saw the liberation of the individual, and a shift of influence over human affairs from state to market as key to the future. For Blair the task was modernisation. Ideological narrowness in the former and the reductiveness of the latter are valid criticisms, but at least both were based on a clear analysis of what needed to change. Today’s respective top line offers – shifting power from big business and abolishing the deficit – may be perfectly respectable steps on a road, but a road to where?
Once again, but this time particularly acutely, the narratives on offer have a missing middle. At the top are value assertions about fairness, freedom, parenthood and apple pie; at the base, specific policy commitments. Missing is an account of the underlying intellectual analysis and political strategy which connects the two. Miliband tries harder, with ideas like pre-distribution and responsible capitalism, but still when the chips are down tactics and opportunism trump strategy and clarity.
Worse still, is the absence of the public as subjects rather than the objects of politics. History shows that agency matters – particularly in mature democracies. As I have argued before, that’s why the Labour’s statist grand plan to abolish child poverty achieved less public engagement that the Mayor of Oklahoma’s folksy fat busting. I defended the Big Society for longer than most of David Cameron’s allies because there was at least the potential for a credible story of reciprocity between change in Government and complementary changes in public norms and expectations.
At question is the whole paradigm of national politics. The contrast with local government is telling. Just about every council leader I speak to knows that engaging citizens as partners (both through their institutions and as individuals) is vital to economic renewal and managing the gap between demands and resources.
‘We’re in this together’ was crafted as a statement about fairness. It would be more powerful as a message about how change occurs in society and the importance to social and economic renewal of shared understanding and commitment. Our prospects depend on the ability of us, as citizens, to adapt and develop. The task of politicians (in Government and opposition) is – through challenge and support – to help us be the people we need to be to create the future we say we want.
We need our politicians to be personal trainers edging us towards greater fitness through being clear, demanding and encouraging. Instead, as a class, they feel more like slightly creepy relatives wheedling their way into our affections by telling tall tales and slipping us sweets that we enjoy at the time, but may end up making us feel sick.
Six years ago, RSA chief executive for only a few months, I was invited to speak to the annual dinner of the Yorkshire region RSA. The event was held in a hotel in Skipton. While it was perfectly enjoyable and people were generally friendly to me, the image projected of the RSA was an establishment organisation of people who primarily enjoyed socialising together. I’m all in favour of Fellows networking and I have no problem with the idea that many Fellows are part of the ‘great and good’ but I came to the evening with a new message.
I talked about a gap between the aspirations most people have for the kind of prosperous, inclusive, responsible society they want to live in and the future we are creating based on existing attitudes, behaviours and capabilities. I argued that the RSA should focus on closing that gap, enabling – to use the cumbersome phrase I relied on at the time – ‘people to become the kind of people they need to be to create the future they say they want’.
More than this, I described my idea – little more than a vague aspiration – that the RSA Fellowship itself might be part of how the Society attempted to close that gap. At the time Fellows tended to be kept at arm’s length from the RSA’s research work, Fellowship engagement levels were low and relations between John Adam Street HQ and the lay regions and nations of the RSA were mutually disdainful. ‘Can’t', I asked, ‘we develop a unique RSA model of change in which our professional research and innovation combine with the voluntary activist initiatives of Fellows themselves?’
I thought my speech went OK and when I made my apologies and left a little early to meet an old friend in Leeds I felt I had taken another small step on the road of reform.
A few weeks later a letter arrived from the Yorkshire regional committee. I can’t recall it in full but I do remember the key point: far from appreciating my speech – the content of which was pointedly ignored – I was informed that the Fellows were dismayed by me leaving before the loyal toast to the Queen. It was made clear that I wouldn’t be receiving another invitation to Yorkshire any time soon.
The recollection of that rebuff is one reason yesterday felt so good. I was already in a positive mood as a result of events on Wednesday when I had addressed a conference to showcase Suffolk County Council’s response to the RSA’s ‘No School an Island’ report on raising children’s educational attainment. The opening speakers were complementary about the RSA’s work and the County keen to emphasise its intention to act on nearly all our recommendations. But the high point for me had been a presentation on ‘Shout out Suffolk’ a joint initiative of local RSA Fellows and University Campus Suffolk to bring pupil voices to the process of diagnosing Suffolk’s challenges and developing solutions. This was a great example of RSA Fellows complementing work being done through our Action and Research Centre.
Back in Yorkshire I found myself speaking first to about eighty Fellows and then about two hundred Fellows and guests. A heating breakdown meant we were shivering inside the historic Todmorden Unitarian church but the sheer enthusiasm of the gathering soon warmed up everyone. Led by the inspirational Yorkshire chair (co-founder of the incredible edible movement and TED star) Pam Warhurst, a range of speakers described great RSA initiatives in York, Leeds, Hull and, of course, Todmorden.
My particular favourite was a project from Leeds Fellow Rob Greenland to bring the five thousand empty properties in the city back into use. Working with the local authority, which provides some sticks, the Leeds Empties group offer carrots in the form of an ‘empty homes doctor’ service to help people who own those properties bring them back into use or put them on the market. I am pretty sure there is a social enterprise model here which could be replicated in other areas. If you want to know more there’s a Leeds Empties website and Rob is writing a piece about the initiative for the next RSA Journal.
I shared my delight at the Yorkshire event on Twitter and my colleague Rich Pickford tweeted back that the Wales annual conference is going well. Scotland RSA has also come on leaps and bounds and its annual conference is also today. I am hoping Rich and Jamie in Scotland might add comments to this post with highlights of their respective events .
Subjugated by the incompetent invasion of middle age, having been in the same job for nearly seven years (albeit a wonderful job) there is a danger of becoming jaded. Certain problems seem to come around again and again and I sometimes lose sight of underlying change. There need to be moments of affirmation when it feels like the work of many years really is coming to a glorious fruition. Yesterday was one of those days and I can only give my heartfelt thanks to the RSA staff and Fellows who have helped make this leap forward in the RSA’s development come about.
In a mixed LRB review of Christian Caryl’s book ‘Strange Rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century’, David Runciman makes a point about the circuitous route of change:
‘The world that fell apart at the end of the 1970s had begun to unravel much earlier in the decade, in the succession of crises that included the demise of Bretton Woods, the Arab-Israeli war, the subsequent oil shocks and a world wide recession. That confused and confusing period turned out to be the dawn of neoliberalism, though it wasn’t until much later that it became clear what had happened’.
He goes on to say
‘Now that neoliberal order is stumbling through its own succession of crises. We are barely five years into the unravelling, if that is what is taking place’.
This analysis sheds some historical light on whether Ed Miliband’s return to statist social democracy will prove to be a wise move.
There are two core assertions lying behind the Miliband programme: the first is that capitalism needs to be rebalanced from big business to small, from producer to consumer and from shareholder to worker. The second – implicitly – is that in a global competitive economy this rebalancing can be achieved by the state without major malign side effects.
The first assertion is the easier to sustain, indeed would be shared by people across the political spectrum. In many ways big business has not come up with the goods; in investment, responsible tax payment, resource use, fair remuneration. In key sectors – most notably finance, energy and water - it is clear there has been systemic ’rent seeking’ (using market position to make money without adding value).
Whether the failings of big capitalism are enough to overcome public scepticism about the state, about Labour and about its leader is another matter, but here again it is worth quoting Runciman on the origins of neoliberal political hegemony:
‘The real story of the late 1970s in the democratic West is that people were tired of political and industrial strife and were willing to try something different, however uncomfortable. It wasn’t a revolution: more a collective shrug’
If we replace 1970s with 2010s and the words ‘political and industrial strife’ with ‘falling living standards and high unemployment’ the case can be made that while only a minority of voters share the enthusiasm of the left for Miliband’s speech, it might yet prove to be a successful gamble. Certainly, the Conservatives now face the challenge of attacking Labour’s policies without looking like they are defending unpopular corporate interests.
It is one of our many cognitive frailties that we tend to focus on unusual events rather than recognising longer term trends. The credit crunch and the resulting economic crisis was, of course, critical but the underlying trend is the thirty year neoliberal experiment in the West running out of road, assailed by its own internal tensions and populist critiques from both the right and left.
Whatever his other failings, Labour’s leader is not unrealistic: he does not think he can single handedly move the centre of political gravity to the left. Instead – and this realistically is all the boldness we can hope for from democratic politicians – he has made a judgment about where the future centre might be and taken the gamble to go there ahead of the electorate (and most of the media).
Whether or not it succeeds, this was then a historically significant speech. However, the pleasure that Miliband’s team gets from reading the reaction of the left may need to be qualified by a final extract from David Runciman:
‘What we are waiting for is a counter-counter revolution, led by progressives who have learnt the lessons from the age of neoliberalism and are unafraid to use its instruments to overthrow them….Someone will get there in the end and maybe by the end of the decade…..but it is unlikely to be anyone near a position of power right now’.