Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Museum Charges (Opposition motion) (Faulds speech)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [864/1237-41]
Editorial comments: 2022-33. MT intervened at c1239.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 1593
[column 1237]

8.22 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Smethwick)

I am sure you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that although I am Labour Party spokesman on the arts, my natural modesty occasionally overcomes me and I retreat to the fastnesses of the back benches—and, of course, I would not wish to crowd the Opposition Front Bench.

I hope that the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) will have the courage to let his vote follow his voice tonight, and I hope that some of his Conservative colleagues will follow him into the Division Lobby. We shall look at them with scant regard if that does not take place.

In an address to the Conservative Party conference at Blackpool on 8th October 1970 the Paymaster-General said: [column 1238]

“If Parliament agreed I would be ready to charge entrance fees.” But the legislation which this House passed was not mandatory; it merely gave powers to charge to such boards of trustees as did not possess them already. It is still for this House to consider whether it approves of a policy by which all the boards are coerced by the Government, on pain of financial sanctions, into carrying out a policy of which they heartily disapprove. That is the issue in this debate.

In that same speech at Blackpool the Paymaster-General put forward a theoretical association between the proceeds of charging—the little loot this policy will raise—and the financing of capital developments for the museums. But, as with so many of the noble Lord's utterances he was incorrect: there is no connection in accountancy. All the capital works recently completed or now in progress were either begun or planned more than three years ago by our dear Jennie Lee. There is one exception: the project—I think not yet begun—to provide additional accommodation by means of mezzanine floors at the National Maritime Museum. So much for the vaunted largesse of that ineffable fellow in the other place.

From our experience of the noble Lord's devious deployment of political blackmail, it is only wise to scrutinise closely, and with a fairly jaundiced eye, the inducements apparently being extended this evening to those Tory backbenchers who have declared their intention of consigning the charges to oblivion. A last-minute bribe has been provided, and perhaps there will be more in the winding-up speech.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

We hope so.

Mr. Faulds

I am delighted to hear that the Conservative back bench hopes so.

The right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science seemed to suggest in her speech today that the proceeds of charges will go to the museums. There was such a mass of verbiage in her explanation that her meaning did not quite emerge. Will the funds be genuinely at the disposal of the museum authorities? Or does it mean that the moneys will be administered indirectly by the Minister? [column 1239]I suspect that these moneys will be taken into account in reducing the direct grants of the museums proportionately. We shall see—and I think I shall be proved right. That would be no concession, but would simply strengthen the potentialities for financial blackmail at the Minister's disposal.

An argument that has been repeated by the Prime Minister is the analogy which he claims to exist between the visual arts and the performing arts—between paintings on the one hand and performances of plays, ballets and music on the other. Since one pays for these, he argues, one ought to pay to view paintings in galleries and objects in museums.

The fallacies of this argument are obvious. Performers have regularly to be paid since they need the wherewithal to live, and even the Prime Minister in his remote tower in Downing Street should realise that, whereas the canvasses and objects d'art on the walls and in the display cases came into our national possession—and they are national possessions—without payment and by private munificence, dead artists “don't need no bread” ! Dead artists whose pictures hang on the walls and objets d'art in museums do not have to be provided for in the sense of making a living for the people who created them.

Mrs. Thatcher

But live wardens need wages, and so do those who conserve the pictures, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Furthermore, they are in short supply and need to be paid a considerable wage.

Mr. Faulds

The Prime Minister failed to point out that fact when he made that statement. Perhaps the right hon. Lady will remind him to do so the next time he deploys that argument.

Nor is it true, as our musical Prime Minister has frequently asserted, that music is never available free. Is he contemplating reimposing licensing fees for sound radio and musical licences for our great cathedrals? We shall wait and see.

In this connection the House may derive some benefit from a letter which I have received from a concerned correspondent in terms of the Prime Minister's musical interest. He writes:

“Dear Mr. Faulds, I am writing to you as the spearhead of Labour's attack on the museum charges.” —
[column 1240]It is very nice to be recognised—

“I enclose for reference an interview with Mr. Heath. In this cutting he asserts that ‘As a musician I never got anything for nothing.’ I wonder next time there is a debate it might be worthwhile reminding him that for four years he was a leading participant in the Balliol College Musical Society whose principle is that all concerts given by the Society shall be free to all members of the University? The Society is supported entirely by financial contribution by members of the college. The concerts are still free to college members who do not subscribe anything. For four years Mr. Heath supported this system and himself enjoyed, free, a series of first-rate professional concerts. He performed there himself and assisted in getting Mr. Yehudi Menuhin to play there on the occasion of Balliol's 800th centenary.”

The gentleman signs himself “Sincerely, Geoffrey Bush” —thank you, Mr. Bush! How sad it is that these civilised activities of his youth should have to be cited in refutation of the flabby arguments the Prime Minister now inflates in his maturity.

Again the Prime Minister, citing the splendid Chinese relics at the Royal Academy, has appeared to claim that the public is capable of appreciating only what it pays for. But he does not understand that such a unique opportunity to see the cultural treasures of another country is not pertinent to museum-going on the every-day occasion. Attendances at museums are clearly affected by charging to a damaging extent. The right hon. Lady, although she did not quote from the report, knows well that the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries has reported falls in attendances in Scotland and Wales. It blames the decline on public supposition that charges had already started. Falling attendances at the National Gallery in London were strikingly reversed during a month last year—I think it was September—when a huge placard stating that admission was free was placed outside the gallery.

Further evidence is offered in the September bulletin of the Museums Association in which it is stated that—

“a dramatic improvement in the visitor totals of the museums concerned”

followed the abandonment of entry charges at your municipal museums in Edinburgh. The report says that the figures were supplied to the Paymaster's Office at its request. Presumably those telling statistics, which were a bit inconvenient, were quickly pigeon-holed [column 1241]and forgotten and were not drawn out for the right hon. Lady's speech.

Have the Government realised the effect of their policy on future benefactions? Their intended tinkering with the will of Henry Vaughan was averted only by a flood of protests from Members of both Houses and the certainty of defeat on the issue.

There are—and I spell this out to the Government—there are collectors who are devoted to the arts and to this country who would wish to make their contributions to enrich the national museums, but who are repelled by the total insensitivity of the Minister for the Arts and by the Prime Minister's lofty disdain for the views of those knowledgeable in these matters, collectors and trustees alike.

Contrary to what was wrongly assumed when this long-drawn out lunacy was launched, the whole museum world has made clear its outright hostility. Only yesterday, the boards of two museums in Belfast and Edinburgh stated yet again their wholehearted opposition. The House must know it to be true—it cannot pretend that this is not so—that the charges are being forced upon the museums and art gallery trustees totally against their declared wishes.

We all know that, sadly, politicians are looked upon these days with scant regard. They can be whipped into support or opposition Lobbies at the will of Government or Opposition. What an opportunity this occasion presents to Parliament to assert its right not to be dragooned but to say its mind. I suspect that quite a little tremor of surprise would course throughout the country that on an issue such as this, where the Government are intent on riding roughshod over all informed opinion, hon. Members actually had the guts to get up and say “We have had enough of all this twisting and turning and nonsense on this policy.” Public esteem for the parliamentary process would be enhanced and hon. Members might walk the streets of their constituencies with their eyes less frequently averted.

The House has an opportunity tonight which it should not pass up, and some of the great ghosts which hang about the place might nod their approval of the reassertion of a Member's right to an occasional independent decision.