Magazine article The Spectator

Futile Laddishness

Magazine article The Spectator

Futile Laddishness

Article excerpt

The government's indifference to opera has caused Covent Garden to announce a year-long surrender. Its interest in football has caused it to be convulsed by the fear of having to upset either Mr Murdoch or football fandom - two forces with which the government has ingratiated itself. That the difference in the government's attitude towards the two recreations has appeared in the same week represents the final triumph of laddishness in politics.

Football, to exist, does not much need politicians, except, as in the case of Manchester United now, for occasional regulation. For politicians in general, and this government in particular, football is just a way of implying that they share the people's passions, that they are lads too.

Opera and ballet, however, do need politicians. They have nearly always been subsidised in one way or another, just as museums, national theatres and universities have. Even when opera was a popular art in 19th-century Italy, the theatres were often supported other than solely by the box office. British opponents of state subsidy triumphantly point out that the Metropolitan in New York is privately financed. People who make this claim are hardly ever frequent attenders at opera or ballet, nor do they have the art forms' interests at heart. Otherwise they would know that Americans receive tax concessions for financing opera houses. That is itself a form of subsidy.

Covent Garden reached the pass it came to this week for one big reason: not enough taxpayers' money. This is not to deny Mr Kaufman his fun in pointing to a 'shambles'. But, looked at more closely, nearly all the shambles was caused by lack of government money. Lady Thatcher starved it of money in the 1980s. There was a case then. She could hardly exempt opera and ballet from austerities needed to free the economy from inflation and government overspending. But her denial of public money for the arts persisted too long after the economy had recovered, perhaps because of an ideological preference for private funding.

Labour has no such excuse. The 1940s and 1960s Labour governments had an oldfashioned belief that we should all have a chance to enjoy Matthew Arnold's `sweetness and light'. Harold Wilson, to show he was a man of the people, chattered about Huddersfield Town, but he allowed his arts minister, Jenny Lee, to spend the public money needed to make sure that the people had a chance to enjoy aesthetic experiences beyond the terraces. Wilson and Lee knew that most people were not interested in opera. Neither of the two was much interested themselves. …

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