18 March 2024

Is enjoying the countryside racist?


Is enjoying the countryside racist?

The answer, to some, is incontrovertibly yes. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link, a group led by former Lib Dem PPC Richard Benwell with 80 members including WWF, the RSPCA and National Trust, has warned MPs that:

‘Racist colonial legacies continue to frame nature in the UK as a ‘white space’ and people of colour as ‘out of place’ in these spaces and environmental sector.’

The report was presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Race and Community, chaired by Labour MP Clive Lewis, and argued that ‘cultural barriers reflect that in the UK, it is white British cultural values that have been embedded into the design and management of green spaces and into society’s expectations of how people should engage with them.’ It should be noted with grim inevitability that the group’s secretariat is provided by the Runnymede Trust, one of Britain’s foremost ‘radical chic charities‘.

But this, for some, is tame. After a rehanging of the Fitzwilliam Museum, visitors will now be warned that pictures of ‘rolling English hills’ may lead to ‘pride towards a homeland’. According to The Telegraph:

‘In a gallery displaying a bucolic work by Constable, visitors are informed that ‘there is a darker side’ to the ‘nationalist feeling’ evoked by images of the British countryside. It states that this national sentiment comes with ‘the implication that only those with a historical tie to the land have a right to belong’.

In addition, the Fitzwilliam has replaced the centuries-old approach of chronological ordering to adopt a thematic approach, with rooms addressing such essential artistic subjects as ‘Men Looking At Women’, ‘Migration and Movement’, and ‘Identity’. This, as Mary Harrington argues, fits the pattern of ‘the broader ideology into which elite aspirants are educated in the 21st century: one that distils nations, cultures, and specific histories to costumes and cuisines, and in which all places and peoples are interchangeable’.

Prompting thoughts of the ‘My ‘Not woke’ T-shirt has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my T-shirt’ meme, the Fitzwilliam’s Director, Luke Syson, pre-emptively declared the rehanging ‘not woke‘. He argued that ‘being inclusive and representative shouldn’t be controversial; it should be enriching. We should all welcome the opportunities to understand each other better’ – which sounds remarkably like a desire to adopt woke ideology whilst avoiding controversy.

As I have written in these pages previously, progressive ideology has achieved almost total institutional capture:

‘This viewpoint is largely entrenched inside the powerful institutions that dominate arts and culture – in fact, it is hard to think of a single institution in Britain that has not pivoted towards progressive ideology of one kind or another. Many were formerly politically neutral, but have now been weaponised to advance a particular ‘liberal’ agenda’.

That institutions as wide-ranging as the Fitzwilliam, the RSPCA and National Trust are willing to participate in co-ordinated moments of culturally progressive groupthink is a measure of how widespread the problem of institutional capture has become. Enabled by vast amounts of taxpayers money, for 13 years ‘the Blob‘ has won.

Deterred by the social risk of being portrayed as philistines in polite society, Conservative governments have kept the funding taps to the ‘astroturfed agglomeration of charities, institutions and NGOs’ on full, refusing to force institutions between political causes or public funding.

But a much more pernicious failure lurks below the surface of this particular iceberg. Taxpayer money is no longer merely being used to enable wokery, but to incentivise it.

In 2021-22, the Fitzwilliam received £1.5m in state funding; that was after its Arts Council funding was cut from £1.2m to £637,000. In an interview with Apollo, Syson said he believed this was because ‘ACE was concerned that the Fitzwilliam hadn’t fulfilled its targets of diversifying the audience’.

The Arts Council is the biggest arts funding source in the UK. In fact, it is so large that it can be argued arts funding is a government-run monopoly. Its 2023-2026 settlement invested £445m each year in 985 organisations, over 80% of which comes directly from taxpayers. But it, like the institutions it funds, has become captured by proponents of identity politics.

This is not just institutionalised within the Arts Council – it has become an express goal, and funding is dependent on furthering this agenda, as artist and writer Alexander Adams detailed in 2020:

‘Grants are now given on the understanding that there is a duty to promote ‘marginalised’ creators (and serve ‘marginalised’ audiences), judged by race, sexual orientation and so forth. Artistic merit is secondary to this, if it is considered at all. ACE stated in 2018: ‘This year for the first time, museums have also been required to evidence how they are contributing to making the Creative Case for Diversity’. It is no longer permissible for recipient venues to programme and recruit solely on merit; instead, identity politics is integrated into policy and management, upon forfeiture of funding.’

As we can see from the example of the Fitzwilliam, this creates a system that not only incentivises institutions to engage in identity politics, but to prioritise it in the hope of further funding. In a way, this is a story of the triumph of market forces; despite their supposed commitment to artistic merit over economic value, artists and cultural institutions are responding to economic incentives.

But what is particularly shocking is that it has happened under the watch of the Conservatives, who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional cultural appeal of their party.

A review has been launched into the Arts Council. Its primary focus will be on finding savings of 5% and assessing if ACE-funded projects are ‘ambitious and of high quality’. But after the Arts Council’s statement last week that it would ‘remove or refuse funding to an organisation or an individual purely because they make work that is political’, the scope of that review must be expanded to contend with another question. If conservatives are opposed to identity politics because of the damage it does to Britain’s social fabric, then why continue to fund organisations who prioritise the propagation of that agenda?

For the last 13 years, progressives have run rampant through our institutions, cowing conservatives with deceptive, duplicitous and dishonest appeals to political neutrality, which the right prefers to meekly accept than deal with the fallout of stopping the rot. But arts funding is not neutral – it is weaponised against conservative aims. As Christopher Rufo puts it:

‘No institution can be neutral – and any institutional authority aiming only for neutrality will immediately be captured by a faction more committed to imposing ideology. In reality, public universities, public schools, and other cultural institutions have long been dominated by the Left. Conservative ideas and values have been suppressed, conservative thinkers have been persecuted, and the conservative establishment has deluded itself with impotent appeals to neutrality.’

Conservatives must reject this impotence. As James Vitali writes, Conservatism is and must be more than an antipathy to change. It is distinct from mere ‘orthodoxy’ – it defends certain customs, institutions or arrangements for a reason, not simply because they exist.

As long as conservatives allow progressives to weaponise institutions in order to war wage on our history and culture in the service of today’s political fights, we will continue to foster a divisive culture of identitarian politics.

We must enforce the neutrality of these institutions; the choice between political causes and public funding must be forced onto the arts sector. The invisible hand is sometimes an iron fist.

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Tom Jones is writer and a Conservative councillor for Scotton & Lower Wensleydale

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.