The Arts

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 11:43 am on 20th June 1986.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Blaenau Gwent 11:43 am, 20th June 1986

As I listened to the earlier debate on the arts, I was encouraged to believe that it would be a good day for this country when my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) takes over the task of the Minister for the Arts. I am sure that he will, with his natural eloquence, bring good policy into practice and, with his great determination, raise this matter to the level it deserves. I do not say that to disparage in any way the present Minister for the Arts. He must face an extremely difficult task in trying to sustain civilised standards in this Government. The right hon. Gentleman does his best.

However, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South and I criticise the level of support that the Government give and their general approach to the arts. I think that I quote the Minister correctly when I say that he claimed that the Government were keeping up support for the arts. That is not satisfactory, especially in view of our present critical social circumstances, which were described by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South. At a time of heavy unemployment, when society is under great stress in other respects, the money, resources and intelligent effort devoted to providing for the arts all over Britain should be greatly increased. That is the test that should be applied to the Government. It is applied by some of those who are trying to grapple with our problems.

For the past 10 or more years, there has been a considerable increase in the communities in Wales who support the arts. Of course, the choirs are one of the most notable signs of culture there. The great revival in those areas is due partly to the determination of the communities —all the resources have come from them to recognise that, when faced with this crisis, there must be a great expansion of the arts. That is one way to deal with the problem. Individuals and communities such as mine in Wales are seeking to do that. We do not get anything like the support from the Government that we should have.

I recall the attitude of the previous Labour Governments to the arts. Yesterday, I read an ignorant article in The Times by Mr. Bernard Levin on this subject. Of course, I do not pay for The Times—I read a copy when I come here. Until the Wapping dispute is over, I do not propose to pay any money for it, and I am even less likely to do so having read Mr. Bernard Levin's article. He wrote as though the Labour party were opposed to the development of the arts. Everyone knows what Labour Ministers for the arts have done. Jennie Lee, especially, set new standards for Ministers for the arts. She was not called "Minister for the Arts", but she did that job. She did a splendid job and played a leading role in introducing the Open university. That system was set up when there was fierce competition for resources and the Department of Education and Science and the department with responsibility for the arts were faced with the strain of choosing priorities. Jennie Lee was one of those who insisted on the choice being made by Cabinet. She took the case to Cabinet.

I am proud when I see on the walls of the cottages of mineworkers, steelworkers or others of my constituents certificates from the Open university. Those people have been able to profit from the Labour Government's decision to go ahead with the Open university, despite all the attacks by those against it and the attempts to prevent money from being supplied to it. They ensured that it went ahead on the basis of applying the highest academic standards. I think that everyone recognises that, although I point out that the Government still restrict the amount of money available. The Government should increase the resources available instead of restricting the numbers of people who can make use of a full university education, some of whom might not have been able to take advantage of such education earlier.

One of the most disagreeable features, to put it mildly, of these restrictions is that they are often imposed by people who have had a good university education. Apparently, they are prepared to restrict the opportunities offered to other people. There were elements in the Department of Education and Science who wanted to resist the Open university because they said that there were other priorities. The Open university has now become the biggest university in the land. It is catering for wider and different sections of the community than ever before. That was done at a time of financial crisis and it shows what can be achieved under a Government with the will and imagination necessary to carry such matters further.

I am glad to hear the support that the Government are giving to libraries. However, much more ought to be done. Many of the provincial libraries are having the greatest difficulty in sustaining their service to the community because of the general restraints and cuts that the Government have imposed on the rate support grant. Individual libraries, such as the Fawcett library, are in danger of closing. I know that that is not the Minister's immediate responsibility, but he should be using his influence to try to ensure that resources are provided for that library. The same applies to the museum of labour history and other such institutions. There are many areas where, if the Government had the energy and imagination required, great assistance could be given to ensure that many varied institutions, at a time of social crisis, get the support they deserve. I hope that the Government will not be complacent. I hope that it will not be too far ahead when my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) will be able to take his proper place in the next Labour Government and place the service of the arts in the proper perspective that it should hold in a civilised nation. That is what we want to see.

I wish to refer to one specific matter on which I hope that the Government will give us the backing that I believe they could. It is a matter that I have taken up with the Minister before, but I shall emphasise it again now not just in the interests of the body—the Byron society, of which I am a member—but in the interests of the nation as a whole. The duocentenary of Byron's birth will take place in 1988. It will be a big occasion throughout this country. There will be big celebrations at Cambridge university, where Byron went, much against his will. He would have preferred to go to Oxford, he made that quite clear. There will be celebrations at Newstead and throughout the rest of the country.

It is by no means certain that what we do in this country will not be surpassed by what may happen in many other countries. So great was Byron's fame, so wide his influence and so important the place he holds in the literature of our country and in world literature, that there will be similar celebrations in Greece, Italy, the United States and many other places. There are now nearly 30 Byron societies throughout the world. Recently a society was formed in China and some other parts of the world and it provides a great service to the country as a whole. I hope that the Government will approach this matter in a properly imaginative spirit.

There has been a transformation in Byron's reputation over the past 50 or 60 years. If anybody doubts what I say, they have only to look back at the controversy in 1924 when the last major Byron centenary was arranged, 100 years after his death. At that time there had been so much defamation of his character that it was almost allowed to denigrate his poety, works and achievements. We did not have a Byron society in those days, but those who had gathered to try to present the matter properly to the nation and the world, found they were facing a defensive battle and that they had to present great arguments to protect Byron from the assaults from so many quarters, even 100 years after his death. That protection succeeded and in the past 60 years his reputation has been transformed.

It would be churlish for us in this country to deny the contribution that has been made by those in other countries, especially the Americans. The American scholarship has made great contributions to try to ensure that Byronic literature should be properly represented to the world. Over the past 10 years we have had a magnificent production of Byron's letters by Professor Leslie Marchand — published, naturally, by John Murray. That has now been matched by an almost equally magnificent production of Byron's poetry by Professor McGann, published by Oxford University. Byron is coming home to his first love of Oxford at last and that is a great development.

We certainly acknowledge the worldwide interests, especially the interest of American scholarship. However, we must take account of what has been achieved and contributed in this country.

Among the people at the meeting in 1924, to which I referred, when a few people got together to say that they were determined to protect Byron's reputation from the assaults that were made upon it, was a young and beautiful woman who for almost the first time came to hear about the name of Byron. She later applied her particular aptitude to writing about Byron. I think that everyone who has studied the matter will agree that she has probably written about Byron with greater Byronic wit and imagination than anyone else. I am glad to say that she is still with us. I went to see Doris Langley Moore the other day. Her biographical works, as I have said, have matched any that have come from across the Atlantic and exceeded them in wit and understanding. I am glad to say that she is still alive and radiant and I trust that she will play a prominent part in the celebrations of 1988, just as I hope that the Government will make special efforts to ensure that the occasion is celebrated in a proper spirit.

The best that the Government could do to celebrate the occasion—it does not exclude all the other things—would be to respond to the appeals which have come afresh from the Greek Government for the restoration of the Parthenon marbles to the people and the land of Greece. I know that there have been plenty of arguments about that. I am not asking the Minister to reply now. In fact, I hope that he will not, because I daresay he will give us the old official reply he has trotted out before, and we do not want that. I know that there has been plenty of argument among people who do know the facts. I am not necessarily including the Minister in that respect.

For example, one of the most respected Presidents of the Byron society, William St. Clair, who has written probably the wittiest and most graceful book on the subject, appears to come down against the proposition of the return of the marbles. That does not make the argument conclusive, by any means. There are a whole range of arguments on the other side, especially those advanced by Byron himself. Anyone who reads what Byron wrote could see that he was discussing not only what should happen and why he protested so strongly against the spoliation of the Parthenon, which caused a sense of outrage among Greeks at the time, or about what was happening to Greek heritage— they have as much right to cherish their heritage as we have to cherish ours —but was expressing his sense of ourtrage when he saw great nations trying to trample on the rights of small ones.

Therefore, the great poetry that Byron wrote on that subject was directed not only to what was to happen to the Parthenon marbles, but to the way in which the world was going, and what was to be the reputation of our country in this age and time. One of the things that we shall celebrate in 1988 is the spirit in which Byron looked forward to the ensuing century and more, and foresaw a different role for our country from the one that we were performing at that time. He looked forward to an age when our country would be speaking in the name of freedom, not in the name of an imperial power. He looked forward to the time when we would be able to show our common heritage with all those other countries. It is partly because Byron expressed that almost more successfully and brilliantly than any other of our poets that he commands that worldwide allegiance.

Therefore, I say to the Government: let them not reply to what I am proposing today. Let them consider it carefully, because when the deed is done, the Government who take the final step of restoring the Parthenon marbles to where they belong will be acclaimed for their magnanimity. It would be a good thing for this Government if they did it. However, I am glad to know that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South takes up his position, and when my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) takes his position as Prime Minister, we shall carry out that act of magnanimity. That at least should be some incentive to the Minister and the Cabinet, which I know he has such difficulty in converting to any wise courses on those great matters.