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Quangos in a Tory arts quandary

An arts establishment filled by New Labour supporters is starting to court Team Cameron

When the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, delivered a speech this month asking New Labour- supporting "luvvies" to rally to the defence of the arts, he omitted to mention the recent dwindling of their ranks. For the last year, the arts and media establishment has been thrilling to the sound of a minimalist, John Cage-like movement. Listen a bit more carefully, though, and the sound is unmistakable – it is the shifting of chairs in the direction of David Cameron's Tory party.

It's not hard to see why. The Tories are very likely to win the general election next year, and to make swingeing cuts to the public sector very soon after that. The arts look vulnerable, especially the expensive quangos that mushroomed under New Labour and are packed with its sympathisers. During the last year, for example, no one with an ear to the art-world's rumour mill can fail to have heard that the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts might well end up on the butcher's floor.

Nesta was inaugurated in 1998, during the initial euphoria of New Labour's Cool Britannia, and endowed with a cool £200m of National Lottery money. The idea was to promote innovation, but the problem was that Nesta never really had a clear idea of what that meant, and often confused it with social and political ends like reinventing politics or communities. It has also faced allegations of cliquishness and a lack of transparency. A report from the House of Commons select committee on science and technology, published in 2002, voiced its concern that Nesta's system for selection to its coveted fellowships left it "open to accusations of networking or favouritism".

Rumours about its precarious position seem to have made their way back to Nesta itself. If a report in last month's Prospect magazine is to be believed, its chief executive, Jonathan Kestenbaum, has been vigorously lunching those around Team Cameron. All this must be a little delicate for Kestenbaum; he is one of New Labour's business friends, after all, and in the autumn of last year he was forced to deny reports that he had been offered a job as David Miliband's chief of staff in a mooted leadership challenge to Gordon Brown.

All the same, he has bravely rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. During the recent party conference season, Nesta ran a full five events at the Tory conference, compared to only three at Labour's. And during the summer Nesta appointed Phillip Blond, an academic identified as one of David Cameron's gurus, to one of its coveted fellowships.

On the face of it, it was a curious choice. Blond is a Christian theologian with some very interesting arguments about how a transformative ethic can renew Conservative political philosophy. For an endowment dedicated to innovation in science, technology and the arts, however, he seems to be just about the last person whose name would come to mind for a fellowship – he's had little or nothing to say on any of those subjects. When I asked Nesta to explain the selection process through which it had come to choose Blond as a fellow, its spokesperson referred me to a list of its other fellows – all well known for their ideas on how to foster innovation – and to an interview with Blond in the Guardian.

Nesta isn't the only organisation steeling itself for the political transition. It's a great time to be Tory. The planned restructure at the UK Film Council and its mooted merger with the British Film Institute are taking place with more than half an eye on an incoming Tory government; at the recent London Film Festival, both courted senior Conservatives with invitations to their gala events. As soon as his appointment was announced on Wednesday, Archie Norman – the new chairman of ITV – felt impelled to make a statement saying that he wouldn't "expect favours" from an incoming Tory government.

The danger is that the Tories might follow New Labour's example. Bradshaw's rousing defence of the principle that funding for the arts could be conducted at "arm's length" from governmental interference would have been more convincing had his party not sought to infuse arts organisations with the idea that innovation could be pressed into the service of immediate social and political ends – as if Twitter could renew people's interest in politics, for example, or public art could solve social ills. That instrumental approach is now discredited. The only people who benefited were mediocre artists and apparatchiks who could talk the talk.

The Tories, quite rightly, are going to have none of it. The problem is that quangos and arts organisations are still stuffed with New Labour's appointees, many in the invidious position of having to butter up the other side. Most are so deeply wedded to New Labour that they have little idea about who they should even be cosying up to, with the result that many of those lunches are going to waste. Over a cup of coffee one source, who has worked for Nesta, told me that the whole thing is "unedifying, like an episode of The Thick of It".

There is no doubt that an incoming Tory government should defend both robust funding for the arts and the arm's-length principle. A civilised country needs solid and independently minded support for its arts, particularly the difficult, challenging stuff – the real stuff of innovation – that commercial sponsors tend to turn up their noses at.

But the Tories should resist the temptation to replace New Labour's cultural leaders with their own. Tories are known for their charm, after all, but not for their taste. The irony of this shifting of chairs is that Team Cameron is still running a shadow operation in opposition, and is much too small to have worked out the finer detail of which quangos it plans to cull. In the meantime, however, they might want to beware the attentions of fairweather friends. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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