Martin Kettle: let’s nationalise fun

by Stephen Tall on May 20, 2006

I’ve spent some part of this week thinking about Martin Kettle, assistant editor and regular columnist for thegrauniad, following a conversation I had with a colleague about who is currently the best British political journalist.

I said Philip Stephens of the Financial Times and Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer. He said Matthew D’Ancona of The Sunday Telegraph (with which I half agree) and Mr Kettle.

It was this latter name which surprised me – not because I bear him any ill-will, but because I’ve never really noticed him. Essential columnists either stimulate, through impartial and acute analysis; or provoke, through trenchant and sparky writing. Martin Kettle rarely gets either my intellectual juices flowing, or my gander up.

Until today.

Because I made an extra effort to read his column to attempt to discern what it was my interlocutor found so compelling about Mr Kettle’s scribblings. And today was the day he issued an impassioned appeal for more government funding of the arts, including this descent into grotesque Dave Spart-esque over-simplification:

The few millions of pounds that shape the difference between arts misery and arts happiness is minuscule when set alongside the billions lost each year in defence project overruns or the tax credit shambles. But ministers are more afraid of spending money on a theatre than a missile.

Risible though this comparison is, let’s do it the justice of rebuttal.

First – though I’m no neo-con hawk – even I accept that spending on defence will be seen by the vast majority of people as more important than funding the next Legs Akimbo theatre performance.

Secondly, the idea that only missile production wastes public money, while the Arts Council always and everywhere invests in first-rate ideas which become rip-roaring successes, is just a tad flawed.

Thirdly, most of us would accept that government must be a monopoly provider of national defence in preference to competing private militias. I’m not sure that argument can be sustained for the arts.

But Mr Kettle doesn’t stop there. Instead, he makes explicit the proposition that individual enjoyment of the arts can only be realised through government action:

A new Demos pamphlet by John Holden … identifies three ways of arguing for the value of the arts: instrumental, institutional and intrinsic. New Labour is most at home with the instrumental argument, that the arts are worth subsidising because they have useful social consequences; and to a lesser extent with the institutional one, that the arts expand the public realm. The argument that arts have an intrinsic value to the individual has too little part in Labour’s worldview. Yet this is overwhelmingly the argument that matters most to people in the arts themselves, and to the arts public.

Let’s follow his logical sequence: art is good; many individuals like art; those individuals who like art are better than those who don’t; therefore government should fund art to make all individuals into better people.

And this is where my liberal alarm bells begin to peel shrilly in my ears. Because I do not want this government, or any other government, picking out for preferential treatment those particular aspects of the arts world they believe will make people into better citizens. Only an ex-Marxist NuLabour convert like Mr Kettle would see the merit in nationalising fun.

I am well aware that in the world of Lib Demmery, I am on something of a free market limb when it comes to arts policy. I strongly advocate scrapping the BBC licence fee because I think it is creating a monopolistic media megalith which threatens to crush all other rivals. That liberals across all parties defend a regressive poll tax which subsidises the entertainment pleasure of the middle classes at the expense of the poorest groups in society is something which continues to baffle me.

But there are many who share my suspicion of governmental creep into the world of the arts, who question why quite so much public money is spent on things which are deemed by others to be “good for us”.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Kettle that art has “intrinsic value to the individual”. That’s precisely why government should leave it alone.