Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1971 Jun 21 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Museums and Galleries (Admission charges) (Opposition motion)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [819/1017-28]
Editorial comments: 1647-1712. MT intervened at c1023.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3695
[column 1017]

4.47 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

This Motion of censure has the full [column 1018]weight of the Opposition Front Bench, from the Leader of the Opposition right down to the hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Faulds). I do not mean that in any way disrespectfully to the hon. Member for Smethwick, but it has a full backing from the Opposition in a “three-line Whip” , to us a parliamentary phrase, requiring Members to attend, no doubt to support their party in the Lobby.

My right hon. Friend has given us a mass of factual information. I do not propose to repeat that, but I should like first to try to set this Motion of censure in its proper perspective, because I believe that the Opposition see it as the culmination of a long campaign to discredit the Government's efforts in the arts in general.

I believe that this campaign has been carefully organised over a long period, both in and out of Parliament. It may be news to hon. Members opposite that accidentally, Mr. Andrew Wright, who has been conducting the Campaign Against Museum Admission Charges in the country, sent a copy of a letter which he addressed

“Dear Labour Member of Parliament”

to one of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Faulds

There is hope yet.

Mr. Cooke

Yes, but I think not for the hon. Member when he reads the letter. The beginning is merely a preamble, but the second part is significant.

“Our plan of action has been twofold. Firstly, to secure publicity we are holding an inaugural meeting of Monday, 14th December …”

It mentions Lady Longford and Roy Strong as being participants, and others who have promised to attend, including Miss Lee, now Baroness Lee, and various others, Lady Llewelyn-Davies, Baroness Serota, and so on.

“Secondly, we are attempting to secure grass-roots support” —

this is the significant sentence—

“… we are attempting to secure grass-roots support. We have heard that Lord Eccles believes that there is little opposition to the Government on this issue because he has received only 200 letters of protest … We are urging everyone to write to their M.P. and to Lord Eccles. In furtherance of this, we are contacting every Labour constituency agent. Also, we are organising the circulation of petition forms. (One is enclosed.)

We would appreciate your endorsement of the Campaign and your help in any way. We [column 1019]have real hopes that, with work in the public sector”
— I do not know whether that means underground work in the great national institutions, but I leave the House to judge that—

“combined with strong support from the Labour Party itself, we stand a fighting chance of persuading the Government” —

and so on.

That document is to some extent significant since it appears from it that the Labour Party, having taken up a standpoint, felt it necessary somehow to get grass-roots support for it.

Mr. Faulds

There was no connection.

Mr. Cooke

There is certainly little connection between the aims and objects here and the grass-roots support which is mentioned, as one would assume that grass-roots support meant spontaneous public interest, really live public interest among thousand, indeed millions, of people, if this were such an important subject as the Labour Party would make out.

How many letters did hon. Members receive? I represent a great university city. I have served on the Museum and Art Galleries Committee. I am known publicly to be interested in the subject. I have had about two dozen letters, nearly all from known Socialist supporters in the constituency. Fair enough, but the Labour agent did not seem to have stirred things up very well. On any arithmetic one cares to use, if all the Labour Party agents were hard at work since last December—and, presumably, some Members of Parliament as well—they had a very poor response.

One can picture the scene in the Labour Party office, with people coming in every day to do business of one kind or another. The agent says, “Please sign this” . The chap asks what it is all about. He is told, “It bashes the Tory Government” . “All right” , he says, “I will sign it” . As a result, they have collected just over one signature per day per office. That is not very good, and it puts the whole thing in perspective. A great deal of the agitation has been based on a political motive, and there is no real public support for the cause which the Opposition are now putting to the House. [column 1020]

I come now to the question of the alleged confusion in my noble Friend's statement in the other place and elsewhere. The trustees of the Tate have been mentioned many times today. I say only this about them: they are not God, they are not the supreme court, they are not to be held in awe, particularly by the House of Commons. They are the same as any other trustees or committee running an institution.

In the Evening Standard last Thursday, there was a paragraph which said that a deeply disturbing anomaly had come to light in that the legislation which my noble Friend proposed was just enabling legislation and that the trustees were “aghast” at the prospect. I should like to see a picture of an aghast trustee. I am not sure what sort of image that conjures up. Perhaps it could be the subject of a picture commissioned by some of the trustees.

The next morning, Lord Eccles replied and his words were quoted in the Daily Telegraph. He was quoted on the Friday morning as saying that the Government will require all 18 institutions to charge. Nothing could be more definite than that.

Despite what was said there—they must have known all about it on the Friday—the trustees of the Tate appeared in The Times on the Saturday in a long piece in which they appeared to take no notice of what my noble Friend had said. They would not, they said, introduce the charges unless an unequivocable public statement was made by the Government.

Surely, as a statement had already been made, this was merely stoking things up again——

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)


Mr. Cooke

I had better not give way, since there are so many hon. Members wishing to speak.

I believe that the Tate meeting had before it a carefully prepared and detailed statement which was agreed at the meeting. It was all planned beforehand. To judge by the length of it, it must have been preconceived. The matter did not arise spontaneously at the meeting. The chairman of the trustees was asked by The Times whether he regarded Lord Eccles' statement as unequivocal. “No” , said the chairman, “wait for Monday's debate” . He has now got it. But I [column 1021]submit that he had that unequivocal statement already.

In its leading article on Saturday, The Times referred to the Opposition's Motion today as “well timed” . Well timed in what way? Notice was given at seven o'clock last Wednesday, the last possible day for notice for debate today. There is a three-line Whip on it. That is the Opposition's affair, but, if it were a matter of such enormous importance, one might have expected the Opposition to give the House a little more notice. I believe that they conceived it as just another chance for a quick in-and-out dart at the Government because there is nothing else they can think of at this time.

The Times says that the stage has been set for today's debate by the statement of the Tate trustees. Perhaps it is all part of the same plan. Lord Eccles is abroad at the moment. How very convenient for certain people. The Times says that the trustees are entitled to their view. Of course they are. I heartily echo that. It says also that they cannot escape Government action, and my right hon. Friend has dealt with that.

It was suggested that they could forgo the benefits which will arise as this policy is worked out. But if they did that, they would themselves be depriving the living artists referred to by the hon. Member for Smethwick of the benefits which will accrue from this and other policies. If they did not co-operate with the Government, they would by their own deliberate act deny themselves the benefits of the Government policy. Whether the trustees would continue to levy the handsome charge for special exhibitions which they levy now I know not.

The Times comes back to the matter again today with another piece, perhaps to stoke things up. Also, it promised a profile on page 12 of Lord Eccles. There was no profile on page 12. There was large space devoted to hats at Hurlingham and another large picture of young ladies waving placards about something or other. But no profile of my noble Friend. Inquiries of The Times made by the Library of the House have elicited no answer, save that it was removed at a late hour last night.

Before leaving the question of the Tate trustees—we are doing them proud today, [column 1022]but there are some other things which should be said, and I am saying all this in good humour, having met several of them—I must point out that they are sophisticated political operators. They got their new site for expansion of their gallery by pretending to be prepared to knock down the portico. I do not for a moment believe that they were serious about that, but it was an extremely astute move because both sides of the House combined to protest. I believe that it was the Prime Minister himself who came to the House and said that another decision had been made, at which we were all delighted. But that was an example of the fairly sophisticated way in which the Tate trustees operate.

The Sunday Times, in my view, did the Tate trustees and their like a gross injustice when it said that Lord Eccles was having a difficult time with them—that may have been true—because they feared that, if the Labour Party returned to power, they would be ousted as a reprisal for too tamely accepting the charges. My advice to the Tate trustees would be, “Do not worry. You are doing a fine job for the Labour Party. You will not be for the chop” . I do not believe that there was very much in that paragraph although, undoubtedly, it expressed a view which is held by some.

I come now to the White Paper. It was well received in the Press, not just by the Daily Telegraph. Many newspapers received it well, and the broadcasting media, at least, did it the honour of not being unduly critical. In fact, the behaviour of the broadcasting media has been somewhat strange in all this. There were almost weekly programmes based on the rumours going around about what the Government would or would not do about charges, and I myself received four invitations to appear on both sound and television. I declined those invitations while the rumours were being flung about because I was certain that the Government's actual proposals would be nothing like the rumours.

When the White Paper was published, the broadcasting media decided that there was not sufficient interest in the subject and it would not be covered on that occasion, but they sent me a letter to say that it would be covered when the debate took place. I look forward to an invitation to appear—or, perhaps, some of my [column 1023]hon. Friends will be asked to appear—to put the Government's case.

I should like to continue with a few observations on the White Paper. I am glad that my right hon. Friend referred to the British Museum Library, which is omitted from the White Paper. Labour hon. Members will claim that it was their Government that got it under way. But if it had not been for my noble Friend's position and the stand he took as chairman of the trustees of the British Museum we should not have had the reversal of the previous Government's declared intent to abandon the site and not to proceed with the scheme. It was due to my noble Friend that we shall see that Library constructed to be the finest in the world.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

That statement has been made twice today. The reversal of the decision was made by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Education and Science. He decided that the Library should be built on the Bloomsbury site and that the finances should be provided to build it.

Mrs. Thatcher

I remember cross-examining Edward Shortthe then Minister and asking him whether the decision was that the Library would be built on this site. The answer I got was that there would be a feasibility study and that it was not definite.

Mr. Faulds

A feasibility study, of course. How else?

Mr. Cooke

I am most grateful for the exchange between the two Front Benches. I leave the House to judge. But the facts of life are that if it were not for the energy of my noble Friend we should not be where we are on the British Museum Library. As the Minister making that decision did not make it of his own volition, pressures were put on him by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), myself and other hon. Members. I am grateful for the support that we had behind the scenes on this. But the Government were very stoney-hearted about the matter until they were pushed off their perch.

My right hon. Friend has gone through the White Paper at length, but I would re-emphasise the £11 million of new commitment in it for housing the arts. It [column 1024]represents a 50 per cent. increase in the capital programme, and finances the promises made by Baroness Lee when she was the Minister for the arts in this House. The finance for many of her policies was not committed.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) referred to the position of the school parties. The galleries do not wish to discourage the organised school parties, but they do not have the facilities to receive them. It is all part of the policy arising from the White Paper that a greatly improved facility for the schools will be possible. If we had greater and greater numbers of schools now bringing parties, they would hardly see a thing or benefit by their visit. We have only to go to the British Museum when scores of children are there to see how difficult it is for them or anyone else to see the exhibits.

I have referred to Miss Lee, as she then was. There is no doubt that she made promises, but no provision was made to finance them. The Arts Council massively over-committed itself, and the moment of truth arrived when the Auditor-General produced his report. All it could say was that it had a moral commitment to produce funds, but no legal obligation, so it felt that it had not transgressed. My noble Friend came to the rescue and insisted that the present Government produced the money to honour these promises. That leaves him little room to manœuvre. He is in a sense a captive of the commitment by his predecessor. Lord Goodman and his officials have been sweating it out before a critical Select Committee of the House upstairs, while Miss Lee has vanished to greener pastures. Hon. Members opposite must bear the responsibility.

In the 1965 White Paper some brave hopes were expressed. It said:

“It is to be hoped that one day fine permanent buildings for housing the arts will be universally available. But in the meantime enterprising localities might well investigate the possibility of mobile art centres and travelling theatres … Temporary inflatable structures are already in use in industry. All that is needed is to find models that can be given the gay ‘Come to the Fair’ atmosphere essential for recreational purposes.”

Considerable fun was made of that at the time, but the message there is that there were brave hopes, and nothing very substantial, and that is what we found. [column 1025]

I come again to the charges, because it is out of the charges that much of the new work will arise. We have been given some statistics. There are many charges that exist, and did exist for long years before the recent war and before the previous war at the great institutions, when money was money. Now we have the doubled charge at the Tower of London, and greatly increased numbers, and only recently the charge was doubled at the Wellington Museum, which is part of one of our great London institutions. To make for a better display and to cater for the greatly increased number of visitors, it is absolutely essential that we have the financial resources.

In passing, we might comment on the Hayward Gallery across the river, which is well known to many hon. Members on both sides, and which has always made a charge. About half the costs of running it are recovered in that way, and yet young and old people are queuing to go in and to pay a charge far in excess of anything my right hon. Friend has proposed.

I am surprised that the Museums Association has not been called in aid this afternoon. Some hon. Members have suggested that the association as a whole is implacably opposed to charges. I ask them to study what has already been said at a previous conference of the association and to see what happens when my noble Friend addresses the conference later this summer. A frank and fair discussion at that conference—the hon. Member for Smethwick laughs——

Mr. Faulds

He is in for a rough ride.

Mr. Cooke

I am sure that my noble Friend will be able to cope with that conference. Out of it a good deal of useful discussion will no doubt come, and perhaps the air will be cleared. My information was that before the General Election, before there was quite so much passion about the matter, about half the people who attended the conferences were quite agreeable to some form of charges.

Some hon. Members want free days. Free days have not worked well. I believe that the Kenwood experiment was silly, because it coerced people to go in their droves on days which otherwise would not have been so crowded. The free day is not a starter. The differential [column 1026]nature of the charges proposed will, of course, help with crowd control in summer. In the British Museum at times it is quite impossible to see any of the exhibits.

We should try to involve many more people in the arts and the way in which they are supported. The regional arts associations are being built up by my noble Friend. I am depressed to find what a pitiful private response there has been to assisting them up until now. With very few exceptions, there has been practically no private response. What is required is a very modest tax inducement, involving many hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of people.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

On a point of order. The hon. Gentleman is taking the debate extremely wide of museum charges. He is going over the whole range of Government support for the arts. As a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House want to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may agree that he has perhaps been taking up a little too much time on subjects not directly relevant to the Motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order. At the same time, I think that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) must be well aware of the shortness of this debate, the number of hon. Members wanting to speak and the length of time he has already taken.

Mr. Cooke

I do not wish to detain the House but I have given way three times, and this is the first time I have spoken in the present Parliament. I shall try to bring my remarks to a conclusion fairly speedily.

I was speaking about tax inducements for people to contribute towards the arts, a matter which is bound up with the question of revenues and charges. We should allow taxpayers—with both large and small incomes—to deduct from the top of their income before tax a very modest amount of money to be given to a registered charity. That would mean that the arts in all forms could benefit. It would particularly help the museums and galleries we are talking about this afternoon. It would enable the institutions to build up [column 1027]their resources in a way which would help them both with the purchase of new exhibits and with the conservation of those that they already have. It would also mean that a free market in works of art could still continue without the restrictions which some people want.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said that museums as we have them are in many cases out of date. I echo that. Many of the great works of art would look far better, and be better enjoyed by those who want to see them, if they were returned to the places from which they originated. In this respect, the National Trust is doing fine work and so are the trustees for the time being of our other great historical buildings. Perhaps we should think carefully before we put more and more of our national treasures into repositories which are bulging at the doors and return some of them to where they can perhaps be enjoyed in an atmosphere of greater tranquillity.

The provincial museums are not directly implicated in the charges as national museums but they need help, too. Some of those who cry out loudest about the lamentable state of their collections are least able to get the proper support which they should get from their local authority. I am not surprised that Birmingham says that its collections are falling to pieces and that its buildings cannot possibly house them. Birmingham spends £310 per thousand head of the population a year, but it is not as much as York, which spends £900, and Liverpool, which spends £800. It is the local fault and not the fault of the Government that such a state of affairs exists. However, this is delicate ground and I do not want to go further into it.

Those who are interested in the arts are a minority, although a growing minority. I hope that what we can do in this House will increase their number and that somehow although there are so many divisions between us for political reasons we might manage to collaborate and achieve even greater success. We cannot do it if we are eternally divided. I believe that the row over this matter will be just a footnote to a footnote in the history books and that it is the solid work of my noble Friend that will be remembered, just as he will be remem[column 1028]bered as the first Arts Minister of real standing and the man who gave the arts a firm foundation.