Guest leader: It's the culture, stupid

Arts and humanities advocate Philip Esler offers to fill a yawning gap in No 10's strategy for realising Britain's potential

August 28, 2008

Four out of five Britons want the Government to focus on happiness rather than prosperity as its prime objective, according to a poll in Realising Britain's Potential: Future Strategic Challenges for Britain, a Cabinet Office Strategy Unit paper published earlier this year.

Most Britons recognise that while money is necessary for a civilised life it cannot deliver happiness. In times of economic downturn like these, we focus on what really matters in life. Family comes first, but arguably second is culture, for which the British have an enormous appetite in all its forms.

An Arts Council England study in 2003 revealed that of 6,000 people sampled, 77 per cent had read for pleasure, 25 per cent had been to a play, 26 per cent to a musical, 20 per cent to a pop or rock concert and 10 per cent to a classical concert, 22 per cent had been to an exhibition of art, photography or sculpture and 26 per cent had attended a carnival, street art event or circus. Significant percentages had played a musical instrument for their own pleasure, sung to an audience, written music or performed in a play. Each year, millions of Britons visit museums and galleries (more than attend football matches), tune in to TV programmes on history and archaeology and to BBC Radio 4, or attend the 550 festivals in the UK, many of which are devoted to drama.

As well as engaging in these activities, Britons are intensely reflective and curious about them. Millions read articles and books on these subjects, listen to or watch radio or TV shows concerning them, participate in book clubs and absorb the explanations on museum and gallery exhibits. We regard such reflective activities, in addition to the underlying experiences of attendance or participation, as central to our happiness and as an integral part of British life and identity.

Arts and humanities research represents the self-conscious and professional dimension of our reflexivity and curiosity. It is the deliberate and dedicated activity that generates, compiles, analyses, synthesises and propagates our deepest insights into who we are, where we have come from and the cultural expressions we have crafted.

There are about 25,000 arts and humanities academics in UK institutions, most of them active researchers. They lead the world in research productivity in their fields. They are teaching about 500,000 students enrolled in arts and humanities undergraduate degrees, of whom 120,000 graduate each year. These graduates represent a fountain of creativity and innovation and contribute hugely to the knowledge economy. Many of them enter professions such as teaching, journalism and broadcasting, and a small number become academics themselves, thus propagating those habits of reflection on and curiosity toward ourselves and our culture that find their expression in arts and humanities research.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that Realising Britain's Potential does not refer to Britain's extraordinary cultural life. It does not even mention history, heritage, archaeology, artefact, religion, ethics, philosophy, literature, novels, poetry, drama, theatre, concerts, orchestras, opera, dance, ballet, festivals, exhibitions, photography, museums or galleries.

These aspects of life are quintessentially British and our arts and humanities research community underpins and fosters them. Britain will not realise its potential if it ignores them, nor will we secure the happiness we seek. Realising Britain's Potential needs an extra chapter on culture and its symbiotic partner, arts and humanities research, and the AHRC would be happy to write it.

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