Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1980 May 27 Tu
Margaret Thatcher

Speech at Royal Academy Banquet

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Royal Academy, Piccadilly
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text (THCR 1/17/66)
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 2100. Text marked “Please check against delivery”. Sir Roy Strong noted an unscripted addition to the speech ( The Roy Strong Diaries (1997), p258).
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1624
Themes: Arts & entertainment, Conservative Party (history), Education, Taxation, Society

Your Royal Highness, Mr President, Your Excellency, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen. A Prime Minister has many duties to perform, but there are some great privileges, and this evening is one of them. I am proud to be your guest—although I have arrived by the political rather than the artistic route.

We have moved a long way from the exclamation of one of my predecessors (Lord Melbourne) who said:

“God help the Minister that meddles with Art”.

I see the point but I do not intend to meddle with Art. It is a vital part of our civilisation, of our vision, and our heritage. [end p1]

Now, if you ask me in the language of interviewers, what is my policy towards the Arts—my inclination would be to say first that I don't think this is one of the departments of life where I (as Prime Minister) am primarily concerned.

After all, —I recoil from the thought of state art—the words are incompatible. —I know that, unlike policies for motorways, housing, and defence, you cannot measure the level of art by the amount of public money spent on it. —I believe that, even though the heights of artistic creation were often attained under a system of patronage, you cannot achieve a renaissance by simply substituting state patronage for private patronage. [end p2] To suggest you can is to ignore the essential nature of the personal relationship between artist and patron, namely the cross fertilisation of two cultured minds. —And I have a great admiration for people like Hugh Thomas who, with the cheque in his hand, refused to take a sizeable sum of money as a literature prize from the Arts Council on the grounds that it was a matter of principle for him that artists should not take public money.

By this time many of you will be somewhat worried. I should therefore continue in the lawyers' phrase: “Notwithstanding anything herein before contained” …   . [end p3]

I am not going to tell you whatever you may expect, that in a healthy society, there is no place for the patronage of the Arts.

I am not going to say that writers, painters, philosophers and actors must learn to stand, like everyone else, on their own two feet. Nor that, at a time of financial stringency, it is no part of the Treasury's business to shell out public money to keep ill-kempt poets in the condition to which they would like to be accustomed.

I know that all these robust, philistine opinions are attributed to me and a good many of my colleagues. The Government's record in the matter of provision for the Arts does not support them. [end p4]

The truth is that it is impossible to imagine any society in which the Arts in the broadest sense of the term will be able to dispense altogether with patronage. They will always have need of the kind of special provision which is represented by grants, prizes and so on, whether from public or private donors.

What is important, however, is that we should not allow some huge artistic bureaucracy to develop charged with deciding what shall and what shall not be supported, and instructed to ensure that a high level of artistic productivity should be maintained. [end p5]

It is not only that such a bureaucracy, if it ever came into being, would be likely to become the instrument of political censorship; even before that happened it would almost certainly become the preserve of a clique which, with the best will in the world, would tend to impose its often eccentric standards.

There has to be some public spending on the Arts—and the heritage.

Spending on the Arts goes overwhelmingly to the performance Arts, the theatre, opera, ballet and orchestral concerts. Our high standards in these fields are internationally acknowledged. [end p6] But they are very expensive, and the true market prices at the box office would put them beyond the reach of many people.

Given time, I hope our economic policies will change that, but in the meanwhile I am sure it is right to support them. It is equally right to provide for the purchase of the work of contemporary artists. Despite the need for economy we have increased spending on the Arts, libraries and museums to £163 million this year. [end p7]

And in response to the unanimous wish of Parliament, we now have a National Heritage Memorial Fund, under the Chairmanship of Lord Charteris. The trustees come from every part of the United Kingdom. They have interests and experience as diverse as the heritage that they are charged to safeguard.

No-one can be Prime Minister of this country without being reminded daily of this heritage—by among other things, the very surroundings in which one works. [end p8]

10 Downing Street was originally speculative development for all its subsequent history. Today it is what the district valuers call a “mixed hereditament”. I do not care much for the word but I do care for the address. No. 10 is part office, part reception rooms and a small part residential.

Chequers, in contrast, is both historic house and home. The spirit of Winston Churchill pervades Chequers. He inspired the Avenue. His paint-brush strengthened the painting by Snyders that hangs there. In particular the struggling mouse seeking to release the lion from bondage. [end p9]

There are some of us who feel the British lion has been in bondage long enough and have already set our hands to free him.

The Prime Minister of the day owes Chequers with all its calm and beauty to the private initiative of one man, Lord Lee of Fareham.

But of course Chequers is a special case. Mr. President, the patronage of the Arts must be widely diffused, for Art lives by experiment as well as conservation. However, experiment too is largely a matter for private initiative. The great Victorian liberals were fond of telling us how many great prophets and pioneers had been regarded as heretics by their contemporaries. [end p10] The moral was that we that we should be very careful not to persecute anyone just because he seemed to be odd, or engaged in challenging the established tradition. That is good advice and one of the chief principles of a free society.

But there is another side to the coin. The health of society depends as much on the discouragement of rubbish as on the fostering of excellence. You may have heard that I have a fondness for quoting Kipling, and have been waiting for tonight's quote. Well not to disappoint you—here it comes: [end p11]

“We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the
shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the
yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the
horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old:
“It's clever, but is it Art?”

For some, the difficult task is to distinguish one from the other. But not, Mr. President, for you. [end p12]

Under your Presidency, the Royal Academy has enriched the life of the nation in so many ways. It has responded enthusiastically to the millions whose horizons have been greatly widened by the media.

The Summer Exhibition, which surrounds us, is in some ways like a new Parliament. There are the trusted familiars, but stimulating new faces too.

H.M. Ministers and the Royal Academy are both institutions with their roots deep in our heritage. Both are capable of adapting to modern conditions and have many other qualities in common. [end p13]

Tough, dependable, stimulating, held in regard by many, a source of controversy to some but capable of making new friends.

Seen by most as an influence for good, by some as an inhibitor of progress, but by others as a welcome brake on the forces of revolution.

Respect for the past, hope for the future, that is no bad theme.

Art and argument go hand in hand. Thus is the heritage of the future created. [end p14]

Mr. President, you have been kind enough to propose the health of Her Majesty's Ministers. If we are to create the heritage of the future we have much to do: much more than merely providing money, or setting up Committees, or appointing Ministers that “meddle with art”.

First, we must try and bring back a more generous, a less envious, society; one in which artists, performers, writers, want to live, and bring pleasure and prosperity to their own land. Tax laws have grown up over the last generation which have made many artists, from novelists to conductors, into little better than exiles.

But it is not just a matter of taxation. It is a matter of creating, of re-creating an atmosphere in which individual talent—and artists are individuals, above all—can not only survive but flourish, and feel at home. [end p15]

And second, we should see to it that our people are steeped in a real knowledge and understanding of our national culture. This nation is the nation of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Millais, Constable, Turner; of Chaucer and Shakespeare; of King Edward 's prayerbook and King James ' Bible; of Bunyan, of Milton, of Wordsworth, of Byron, of Shelley and Tennyson, to mention a very few of those who have made our heritage what it is. [end p16]

After a long period of decline, I believe we in these islands are beginning, just beginning, to find again the confidence we so nearly lost.

In all that I am trying to do as Prime Minister I am seeking to restore to our people that self-confidence, that courage.

The task is nothing less than to provide the architecture of civilisation: its foundations—tolerance and compassion its pillars—freedom and respect for others its cement—courage and sense of purpose.

If today this should seem to be a land too far away from ours, too far for us to make the leap, remember Apollinaire said: [end p17]

“Come to the edge—it's too high Come to the edge—we might fall Come to the edge—and they came And he pushed them And they flew …   .”