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Cultural Policy in the UK

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5518 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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CULTURAL POLICY IN THE UK: Mid-1960s to late 1980s

Cultural Policy in the UK: Critical overview of the last 30 years

MARCH 2010

In the last three decades (approximately 1980 to 2010), cultural policy in the UK has taken a generally questionable direction. Overall, cultural policy and practices of the past 30 years have been overwhelmed by new neo-liberal discourses and ideologies, namely: economic rationalism, monetarism, neo-conservatism, commodification of culture, managerialism and performativity. Examining each of these in turn, it becomes apparent that a market-driven, neo-liberal approach to UK cultural policy has largely failed in each of its stated aims: economic growth, artistic excellence, increased access to the arts, and social justice.

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The mid-1970s were a real turning point in terms of cultural policy, with broad policy changes occurring from this time on both within and without the cultural sector. In many ways, the earlier 1970s epitomised cultural and political concerns with the general welfare of the public, and some support of the arts for their own sake rather than as an instrument of broader political and social change. The early 1970s saw, in many ways, a political climate of idealism. Cultural policy of the time reflected this atmosphere. However, there were drastic political, cultural, and ideological changes made later in the 1970s which have, to a degree, continued to shape the cultural policy discourse of the next thirty years and up to the present day (Gray, 2007). In the cultural sector as a whole, Gray describes the development of what he calls “instrumental policies” (Gray, 2007, p.5) since the mid-1970s. By this term Gray describes the shift in cultural policy from an arms-length, distanced governmental approach to the arts and culture; to a political interest in using the cultural sector as an instrument, or instruments, of social, economic, and political change. In the first decades of state patronage of the arts, the Arts Council saw itself ‘not as a source of direction, not as a source of artistic policy, but as a kind of enabling body’ (Stevens, 1998: 10, quoted in Caust, 2003, p.52). By the late 1970s, however, this attitude on the part of the state had changed dramatically. Instead of standing back and simply allowing the arts to develop and flourish via generous state subsidy and support, many Western governments – including that of the United Kingdom – developed the ideology that they could and should instead ‘expect “outcomes for their investments”‘ (Caust, 2003, p. 52). The overwhelming shift to a market-based, market-driven ideology in terms of cultural policy has had many negative effects upon the arts themselves, and several tangentially-related areas of the social and political landscape.

In the last thirty years, it is economic change which appears to have been the state’s prime concern in terms of cultural policy, despite public assertions to the contrary. Gray states that the ideological and organisational changes toward instrumental policy-making ‘have had an effect upon what the state does, how it does it, and the justifications and reasons that have been put forward to explain them’ (Gray, 2007, p.5). The reforms that have taken place in the realm of cultural policy in the United Kingdom have been summarised by scholars as variously representing a mode of privatisation (Alexander and Rueschemeyer, 2005, pp. 71-4), or one of commodification (Gray, 2000). Privatisation concerns, variously, a heightened level of interventionism in ‘the management and administration of public assets’ (Gray, 2007, p.5) by private entities or actors; or the sale of previously-nationalised state industries and assets to the private sphere. Commodification is a term used to describe wider changes in political actions and ideology, concerning the replacement of cultural value derived from its usefulness, to value derived from its exchangeability (Gray, 2007, p.5). Commodification results from an ideological shift within the state, and this can be seen as a driving force in cultural policy developments within the last thirty years.

Despite government assertions that artistic excellence and broadened public access to the arts are prime concerns of the state, economic concerns are also often of perhaps overriding concern to the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown administrations which governed Britain between 1980 and 2010. Tony Blair’s opening statement in the government publication Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years (____) makes the economic preoccupation of the government in relation to cultural policy quite explicit. Blair ‘acknowledges a connection between creativity and production and then makes an economic justification for his government’s investment in supporting creativity in its broadest sense’ (Caust, 2007, p. 55). With reference to both culture and creativity, Blair states: ‘[t]hey also matter because creative talent will be crucial to our individual and national economic success in the economy of the future (Smith, 2001: 3; quoted in Caust, 2007, p.55).

Economic Rationalism

Economic rationalism is a term first coined in Australia with regards to economic policies and ideologies which favour privatisation of state industries, a free-market economy, economic deregulation, reduction of the welfare state, increased indirect taxation and lower direct taxation (Pusey, 1991). Such policies were particularly widespread in a global context during the 1980s and 1990s. The policies of Thatcherism provide an example of economic rationalism in action. The origins of the term “economic rationalism” were actually favourable, in describing market-oriented policies of various administrations in Australia, the UK and the US in the 1970s and 1980s (Pusey, 1991).

In the 1990s, the term started to be used with an unfavourable tone, toward the “Third Way” policies of both the Australian Labour Party and the UK “New” Labour party of the 1990s. Both these parties initiated market-driven reforms within their political ideologies, which placed them closer to Thatcherite economic rationalism via increased emphasis upon the private sector in economic, political, and cultural arenas (Pusey, 1991). These were parties which had not traditionally placed a relatively great emphasis upon the free-market economy, and therefore the term “economic rationalism” has been used somewhat disparagingly to indicate that these parties have, to a degree, abandoned their historically leftist roots, when social justice and expansion of the welfare state took precedence over sheer capitalism.

In terms of cultural policy, economic rationalism is evident throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the United Kingdom. Thatcherist policies in the 1980s placed unprecedented ideological and practical emphasis upon the free market, and in terms of cultural policy this translated to cuts in arts and education budgets, and the development of private-public partnership in cultural funding. The logical effect of such policies was that the arts, in particular, became increasingly monetised and reliant upon market and mass appeal in order to survive economically.

The UK governments of the 1980s and 1990s placed great ideological and political emphasis upon the economic potential of the country’s cultural sector. Bennett (1995) views such economic potential as being used as a prime justification for state action and interventions within the cultural sector (p. 205-7). However, as Gray (2007) points out, this is not necessarily the same as ‘seeing culture as a mechanism for economic regeneration’ (p. 16). The governments of the 1980s and 1990s appear to have sought to use various pretexts, including economic arguments, in order to justify their interventions in the sphere of cultural policy, however their true intentions most of the time were to stimulate broader economic growth through such cultural policies. As we shall see later, attempts at stimulating economic growth through cultural policy have, by and large, failed overall.

Caust (2007) asserts that more recent government policy debates have been ‘dominated by an economic paradigm’ (p.52). Arguments which focus upon the economic value of the arts have developed, and thus a political atmosphere is created in which the intrinsic value or worth that society may place upon the arts is trumped by the arts’ purely economic value. Economic rationalism, through its emphasis on the free market and upon the private sector, speeds the development of such an atmosphere, which permeated the UK cultural policy sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Although Caust’s discussion (2007) focuses on cultural policy in the Australian context, there are many parallels with UK cultural policy during the same time period. Caust describes a changing climate in which less emphasis came to be placed on the definition of art itself and upon value judgments of a particular art piece or art form by acknowledged experts.  Instead, market theory is emphasised, and increased importance is placed upon those art forms which can achieve the greatest commercial success. In the realm of cultural policy, such a change in the mode of art’s valuation by the state leads to ‘the desire to support arts activity which was commercial, exportable and cost-efficient’ (Caust, 2007, p.52). In the realm of cultural production, the natural result of such cultural policies is the emergence of mass cultural “products” which satisfy the market.

Simon Cowell, and the massive, global ‘Pop Idol’ and ‘X Factor’ talent-show franchises he created, epitomises the result of two decades of economic rationalism. These programs, in which amateur singers compete in a televised, viewer-voted series, are vastly commercially successful and have been licensed in the US and many European and Latin American countries. Cowell has made a fortune, and it is typically a given that the winner of Pop Idol or The X Factor will have the Christmas number-one single in the UK (2009/2010 was an exception to this rule, when a social-media campaign deliberately pushed a reissued single by agit-rock group Rage Against The Machine to the top of the UK charts in a display of protest against the blandness and ubiquity of Cowell’s cover-song artists). While a huge success in economical terms – Cowell’s franchises combine all the government-desired traits of exportability and mass-market appeal, while stimulating sales of music media in addition to generating significant revenue via paid telephone voting and merchandise – it could hardly be argued that the format of these shows stimulates artistic originality, experimentation, or musical development in any significant way. 

The example above demonstrates that to give the market what it wants often leads to a lowest-common-denominator approach to cultural production and a bland stifling of the development of new and exciting art forms. Such effects of economic rationalism on cultural policy and therefore upon culture itself reflect Caust’s discussion of economic concerns and their effects on culture. As Caust states, such market-oriented cultural policy creates ‘a compromising role for artists since serving the state as an

economic generator is very different from taking risks artistically, or being innovative and creative generally. It could be argued this objective is little different from the expectations of a totalitarian state, in which its artists serve the state’s political aims.’ (Caust, 2007, p.54)


Prior to the late 1970s and early 1980s, governments had on the whole aimed to effect an “arms-length” approach in terms of arts management. One of the founding principles of the Arts Council itself was that it should be relatively independent of the government itself, and not directly under government control. Gray (2007) noted the general tendency of governments to ‘adopt relatively indirect forms of involvement’ (p.11). Gray states that this role can be advantageous for governments, as they are not especially held accountable for the results of such policies implemented at arms-length: ‘they can have some effect on the sector by producing general policies but, at the same time, they can avoid being held directly responsible or accountable for the specific policy choices that are then made on their behalf.’ (Gray, 2007, p.11)

However, with the political, ideological, social and economic changes which took place when Thatcher was elected, the governments of the 1980s onwards adopted an increasingly managerialistic approach to the arts and cultural policy. Increasingly, the arts management implemented by successive administrations over the last three decades has ‘been moved towards a new style of management that has been influenced by private sector models (in the form of mission statements and marketing, for example) (Gray, 2000, p. 112). It certainly follows logically that governments which prioritise capitalism and the free market would be attracted to the idea of imposing private-sector management models upon spheres they were hoping would become economically productive. Hence, successive governments have attempted to run the arts and cultural spheres, to some degree, as if they were private commercial enterprises. In many cases, this is a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the inherent nature of many areas of the arts.

Generally, the start of managerialism in UK cultural policy can be seen during the reforms taking place ‘under the label “the New Public Management” (NPM)’ (Gray, 2007, p.6). NPM emphasised several core concepts, which were put into action via UK state intervention in the cultural sphere. Under NPM, managers in the arts realm were empowered to make more decisions relating to their sphere of management; results were prioritised, and valued, over processes; managerial control was more generally decentralised; competition in terms of public service provision was actively encouraged; new emphasis was placed upon performance measurement; and management appointments now tended to be made through contracts rather than through seniority or hierarchy within the sector (Osborne and McLaughlin, 2002, p. 9; Pollitt, 2003a, pp. 27-8; Gray, 2007, p.6).

Following the 1988 Ibbs Report, new managerial bodies were created by the government – for example, the ‘Executive Agencies (or, more formally, Non-Departmental Public Bodies)’ (Gray, 2007, p. 8). This led to a general decentralisation of government arts management, but also to issues regarding ‘accountability, managerial responsibility and the relationship of elected politicians and appointed managers – with the prime example being that of the clash between the then Home Secretary Michael Howard and the then head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis.’ (Gray, 2007, p. 8)

Local Strategic Partnerships and Regional Development Agencies were newly-instigated modes of arts management, which further emphasised both the decentralisation of government cultural policy during this period. Additionally, these agencies show evidence of overall managerialism towards the arts in that they demonstrate a devolution of power to local and regional arts managers. (Gray, 2007, p. 9) In later years, a ‘somewhat different (“modernizing”) model of public management’ (Gray, 2007, p.6) was implemented, although the more general emphasis upon the concept of managerialism with respect to cultural policy did endure.

Commodification of Culture

In keeping with governmental emphasis upon the economy and the free market within the last three decades, there has followed an increasing commodification of culture. An obvious example of such commodification is enclosed within the phrases “cultural industries” and “creative industries”, which were hailed by New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s as a means of economic regeneration in the United Kingdom. Caust (2007) argues that the development of a view of cultural activity and production as an “industry” grew not only from the government, but also from the cultural producers themselves:

‘When it became increasingly difficult in the early eighties to successfully “argue the arts” to government purely on the basis of the community welfare model, bureaucrats, practitioners and academics began the shift towards using a language that described the arts as an industry and developed the economic/cultural industry model. This led to the use of the terms “cultural industries” in Australia or in the United Kingdom, “creative industries” to describe all activities connected with the arts, as well as sectors far removed’ (Caust, 2007, p. 54)

These cultural industries had been growing throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, aided by technological advances and global economic factors. In the northern hemisphere, populations were enjoying increased economic prosperity; leisure time was on the increase generally; television allowed mass cultural consumption in unprecedented fashion; and consumer electronics including audio and video equipment were becoming widely available and affordable (Hesmondhalgh & Pratt, 2005, p. 3). By the early 1980s, the state was increasingly aware of these growing cultural industries both within the UK’s own economy, and on a more global level.

A path of increasing commodification of public policies was followed since the mid-1970s, with resultant changes in a broad range of cultural spaces. Ideologies prior to this mass commodification of culture had identified society as a whole as the primary intended beneficiary of government cultural policy. Increased commodification led to a shift, as the intended beneficiary of cultural activity and policy was now the individual consumer (Gray, 2007, p.14). Whereas cultural policy had previously been judged upon a broad range of criteria including social justice, access, and excellence; increasing commodification led to a narrowing of the criteria for judging cultural policy (ibid). Increased emphasis on the market value of cultural products and industries leads to an assessment of cultural policy in primarily, if not exclusively, economic terms. Again, this demonstrates a political preoccupation with the outcomes and outputs of cultural policy rather than the processes and inputs related to such policies, and a clear link between managerialism in cultural policy and the concomitant overall commodification of the culture produced under such a system.


Just as the language and aims of commercial private industry were adopted for the cultural policy sphere via managerialism, economic realism, and the commodification of culture, so too the cultural sphere adopted measures and concerns regarding performance during the last three decades. Again, policies were judged on their results, their output and their products, and the economic success of cultural endeavour. In the realm of education, standardised performance tests have been increasingly introduced into the state schools, with the frequency, scope and range of educational tests increasingly greatly throughout the past thirty years. Likewise, in the sphere of cultural policy, tests of performance have also been increasingly implemented. These include Comprehensive Performance Assessments, and the Comprehensive Area Assessments replacing them in 2009, ‘Best Value Indicators, Key Lines of Enquiry for Service Inspection, Local Area, Funding and Public Service Agreements, all of which provide explicit criteria against which service provision can be assessed’ (Gray, 2007, p. 8-9).

The driving ideology behind such a raft of new tests to measure cultural and educational performance would appear to be a notion of accountability. The government wants to prove to an often sceptical public that its policies, whether in education or in culture, are working. Decentralisation of managerial power, and increased managerialism in cultural policy, provide a layer of accountability, or at the very least a scapegoat for failed or disappointing policies. Again, this move towards evidence-based policy-making and assessment reflects the belief of successive governments that the models that work for business can be applied to the cultural sphere. It is uncertain whether this is in fact correct.

Culture does not function in the same way as manufacturing or other private business enterprises, and the outputs or achievements of the cultural industries and creative industries may be relatively intangible and ultimately difficult to measure with performance tests. Here, again, the inappropriateness of applying capitalist, market-driven ideals to the sphere of cultural policy is exposed. Also, the possibility is raised that such performativity in the cultural sphere serves two, largely unstated functions for the government: firstly, regular testing encourages increased cultural “production”, which within the confines of “cultural industry” could be expected to increase economic production; secondly, such emphasis on performance provides a form of justification for government policy in the cultural sphere. There has always been dissent regarding state arts spending in the United Kingdom – how much public money is spent, what it is spent on, and what return the British taxpayers can expect on their investment in the arts. Performance tests in the cultural sector allow the state to point to demonstrable success, progress, or productivity in the cultural sector, which can be interpreted as proof of successful cultural policy implementation.


Instrumentalism – the use of cultural institutions and cultural policy to achieve specific political aims – is in many ways as old as cultural policy itself. For as long as there has been state arts patronage in the United Kingdom, the state has attempted to utilise the institutions, activities and sectors it sponsored to make political, social and economic changes to society. In the most recent three decades, the emphasis has been upon the latter, whereas earlier in the twentieth century, more importance was perhaps placed upon concepts of social change and nation-building. The roots of the Arts Council – the organisation CEMA which was instituted during the Second World War – were in morale-building, increased public access, softening of Britain’s class divisions, and fostering patriotism and a sense of the unified nation. As such, state intervention in the cultural sphere has more often than not been with at least some intention of using said intervention as a political or other tool.

Gray states that the museums sector, in particular, ‘is effectively being used as a tool for the attainment of the policy objectives of actors and concerns that have traditionally been seen to lie outside of the museums sector itself’ (Gray, 2007, p. 3). Museums are particularly susceptible to political manipulation, as they occupy a unique cultural space in terms of creating a nation’s sense of history and heritage, and fostering ideas of nationhood and the future of a country. What is included or excluded in a museum, and the manner in which it is displayed and framed, has a huge effect upon its reception and the ideas it can inspire.

Vestheim (1994), talking of cultural policy, defines instrumental policy as being ‘to use cultural ventures and cultural investments as a means or instrument to attain goals in other than cultural areas’ (p. 65). In broad terms, all cultural policy, and by extension all public policy, can be viewed as instrumental policy. All policy ‘is intended to achieve something’ (Gray, 2007, p. 205). So, while instrumentalitsm has always been a feature of cultural policy in the United Kingdom, it is in recent decades that it has come to the forefront of the cultural discourse. Thatcher, Major and New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have all emphasised cultural policy as an instrument of economic regeneration, and achievement within the market. As such, they have acknowledged that their cultural policies are more baldly instrumental in nature than those of preceding administrations which at least paid lip service to ideals of social justice, welfare, and development of the arts for their own sake.


After the industrial and economic woes of the 1970s in the United Kingdom, the tide was ready to turn to neo-conservatism, and this was a change mirrored in many of the Western societies. Reagan, for example, was president of the United States during the Thatcher regime in the UK, and both pursued Conservative policies within a capitalist framework. In cultural policy and artistic thinking, neo-conservatism was perhaps the ideological opposite to the Romanticism of the preceding century.

In the nineteenth century, cultural discourse was dominated by the ideal of the lone, genius artist who would be successful only posthumously (a striking example of this would be many of the great Romantic musical composers). Romantic ideology lauded the isolated artist-genius who was inspired to work purely because of artistic passion, rather than economic concerns. In fact, to be a poor and starving artist conveyed perhaps relatively more artistic credibility. It was believed that ‘the true value of art is transcendent and can be determined by experts, commonly accompanied by the idea that the monetary value of art is false and the “market” cannot decide’ (Hesmondhalgh & Pratt, 2005, p. 5). Concomitant with this was the Romantic belief that art was for all, and that culture has the power to act as a civilising force upon society as a whole.

Neo-conservatism tuned these ideas on their head. The lauded artist of the 1980s through 2000s is economically successful, creating a cultural product or commodity that appeals to, and responds to, the demands of the mass capitalist market. Ideals of the civilising powers of high culture upon society as a whole have been largely abandoned in practical terms, in favour of economic concerns (despite state assertions to the contrary, the prime goal in recent years appears to be financial rather than social).

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Limited positive effects of neo-conservative cultural policies and ideologies can be appreciated in some spheres. Caust argues that, in a society which is ‘dominated by capitalist values’ (Caust, 2007, p.54), an economically successful artist will likely receive greater respect for their work, as well as more money. Furthermore, the market-driven, neo-conservative emphasis on the exportability of cultural product can have the positive effects of creating national pride and highlighting ‘the value of cultural production to the wider world’ (ibid, p. 54).



‘In recent times arts funding agencies have been restructured to reflect a market-driven agenda rather than an arts-driven agenda.’ (Caust, 2003, p. 51)

Overall in the last thirty years, cultural policy in the UK has looked increasingly to capitalism, the free-market economy, and the so-called cultural and creative “industries” in terms of cultural policy direction. Models from the world of business and commerce have been applied over several decades to the cultural sector: managerialism; instrumentalism; monetarism; economic realism; performativity; and the overwhelming commodification of all kinds of culture. In implementing these policies, many of the more socially-just aims of prior generations of cultural policy-makers have been neglected or abandoned. In an era of increasing globalisation, successive UK governments of the past thirty years have pushed for cultural production, economic viability and profitability, and the creation of exportable cultural commodities for mass cultural consumption.

Applying such concepts and organisational structures from private industry to the cultural sector has its drawbacks. Caust states that, ‘when it comes down to dollars, the

arts cannot in any way compete with many other components of the broad cultural industry spectrum such as the communications or IT areas.’ (Caust, 2007, p.55). Overall, the forces of neo-conservatism have not succeeded in making the UK cultural sector an economically productive and independently viable industry. In attempting to fit the arts and culture into a capitalist mould, UK cultural policy of the past thirty years has failed in many arenas – cultural, social, economical, and political.


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