'Cool' is out, 'creative' is in;Books

5th June 1998 at 01:00
CREATIVE BRITAIN. By Chris Smith. Faber. pound;7.99

Culture Secretary Chris Smith fails to tackle issues that arise in his guide to what's hip inBritain today, writes Aleks Sierz.

Imagine you're Rip Van Winkle. You've been asleep for years and you've never heard of Cool Britannia; you don't know anything about contemporary culture and you haven't a clue about creativity. Well, let Culture Secretary Chris Smith be your guide to what's hip in Britain today.

In this collection of speeches dating from his first year in office, Smith casts a well-meaning eye over creativity in such diverse areas as the film and music industries, theatre, public libraries, broadcasting, advertising, design and world heritage sites. There's lots about national identity, economic value and popular culture.

The good news for teachers is that, in this vision of a creative Britain, education plays a central role. The bad news is that repeating the slogan of "access, excellence, economic value and education" tends to empty it of meaning - and nowhere does Smith examine these concepts. For example, how do you measure "excellence"? Is "creative" worth the same as "economic value"?

Smith doesn't say. Nor does he tell us how access to, say, the performing arts, can be widened without lowering ticket prices. Or excellence achieved without making training in the arts central to education. And would such policies conflict with his desire to see the arts continue to contribute to the nation's wealth? None of these issues is tackled.

But Smith is on a learning curve. Seeing his colleague John Prescott get a soaking at the Brit Awards, he now dismisses the idea of "Cool Britannia" as a myth. Instead, he substitutes the concept of "Creative Britain". In the book's useful appendix, he details the pound;50-billion contribution of all creative sectors to the national economy.

But by including everything in his definition of creativity - from antiques to art, crafts to fashion, publishing to software - Smith finds it hard to avoid platitudes about how the Brits have great ideas and how wonderful today's culture is. Oasis's Noel Gallagher is praised as a great musician, but the issue of music education merits only a footnote on the Schools Music Trust.

Politically, the fundamental flaw of jumping on the creativity bandwagon is that the culture Smith so enthusiastically celebrates blossomed under the previous government. It happened despite - perhaps because of - an unfriendly political and economic climate.

Smith's brief, then, is to avoid messing things up and to repair the damage done by years of funding cuts. He has two main ideas: one is to direct National Lottery millions to new areas, such as after-school clubs, and the other is the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. But how will NESTA work in practice? He doesn't say.

Irritatingly vague, this book may dismay teachers, but it will delight cultural critics. With its jazzy cover - a spin painting by trendy Damien Hirst - and its content full of good intentions, this is a perfect product of New Labour. But if Smith is to be more than the minister for bland affirmations, and if the Government's policy is go beyond colourful packaging, what's needed are policies not promises. When you're quite ready, Mr Smith.

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