BREAD AND CIRCUSES, NOT CAKE
Jacob Rothschild responds to criticism
of his choice of good causes for Lottery largesse, and hints at future beneficiaries
FOR ALL the shocked and puritanical tones of last week's Spectator leading arti- cle ('Let them eat cake'), a national lottery is by no means a phenomenon new to Britain. Lotteries took place under state auspices on and off between 1569 and 1826. During that time, many of our great- est and most loved monuments and collec- tions were paid for out of proceeds raised by lottery: Westminster Bridge is one example and in 1753 the purchase of the collections which later formed the nucleus of the British Museum and a place to house them is another.
Then there was a rather long gap before my father's 1977 Royal Commission with its principal recommendation of a national lottery for good causes. His Commission made what now seem like some rather conservative forecasts, and its members could hardly have contemplated that in 1995 lottery mania would be uncannily similar to the picture drawn by George Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four. He wrote, in 1949:
The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enor- mous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the prin- cipal, if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made a living simply by selling systems, forecasts and lucky amulets.
In just a few months, the Lottery seems to have established itself as the weekly event of national life, as common a subject as the weather, forming part of our nation- al consciousness like the Last Night of the Proms or the Grand National. No fewer than 30 million people out of an eligible population of 44 million play each week. Turnover is running at £5 billion a year; the five distributors are currently receiving about £30 million a week — £1.5 billion a year compared with the Royal Commis- sion's forecasts of a turnover of £100 mil- lion in the first year and a contribution to good causes of £45 million per annum in the fifth year; and if this phenomenon continues, then our little Heritage Memo- rial Fund — which started out as a gleam in Hugh Dalton's eye in 1947 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer — could well become, in grant-making terms, signifi- cantly larger than either the Ford or the Getty Foundation.
The opportunity for doing public good is therefore immense; the potential impact as significant as President Mitterrand's `Grands Projets' of the past decade. In set- ting up the distributing bodies, the Gov- ernment followed the recommendations of the Royal Commission: lottery profits should not simply go to swell the Exche- quer but rather should be distributed in part to 'good causes'. The distributors would have independent boards and would be immune from government influ- ence. It was hoped that they would demonstrate the virtues of the private sec- tor, free from bureaucracy but willing to take risks, seeking quality and excellence.
We, the trustees of the National Her- itage Fund, have to allocate funds between nature conservation, historic houses, cathedrals, churches, archives, manuscripts, maritime and industrial her- itage, museums and museum acquisitions. The trustees are not altogether unlike the Roman `nobiles viii' who had to decide between 'bread and circuses'. In the past the trustees of the Fund never sought to define heritage but rather interpreted this 'broad church' by spreading their net across such widely differing heritage assets as a Holbein, a colony of horseshoe bats, 'Would you let your mother many a Rolling Stone?' Donald Campbell's Bluebird, a collection of trade union banners and the saving of the house and contents of Kedleston Hall.
J.M. Keynes, in his essay 'Art and the State' deplored the heresy of the utilitarian and economic ideal. He wrote 'the Trea- sury view has prevailed — we have per- suaded ourselves that it is positively wicked for the State to spend a halfpenny on non- economic purposes'. He would surely have been delighted to know that lottery funds would one day be there to save and rescue a threatened stretch of cliff, a reach of the Thames, a slope of a down scheduled for destruction, the collapsing Lincoln Cathe- dral; or that we could build today's equiva- lent of the hanging gardens of Babylon, pyramids, parthenons, coliseums, cathe- drals, palaces, even opera houses, theatres, colonnades, boulevards and public places, or more popular amenities such as parks, squares, playgrounds, lakes, pleasure gar- dens, or, as Keynes put it, 'every delight which skill and fancy can devise'.
But The Spectator, in unfamiliar alliance with the Sun newspaper, objects that the National Lottery will gather money from the poor to spend on amusements of the wealthy. And indeed, evidence about lot- tery spending does indeed point to low income, less educated players spending a higher proportion of their income on tick- ets than others.
This debate has been a recurring theme for most of this century. For example, in the House of Commons in 1929, the newly elected Labour government voted on the previous administration's proposed grant of £106,000 to save two of what are now amongst our most cherished treasures of the National Gallery — the Wilton Diptych and 'The Cornaro Family' by Titian — which were to be acquired from the Earl of Pembroke and the Duke of Northumber- land respectively. Here is an extract from the debate which eerily prefigures The Spectator's philistine approach: Mr Buchanan MP: 'I think that the grant is a scandal. I do not believe that the pictures are of any value as a national purchase. The test I apply is this: Is this expenditure good value for the nation as a whole? It might be good value for a select few who will go and look at the pictures. How many people visit the National Gallery, and how many can tell the difference between two pictures that cost £106,000 and two other pictures that cost 106 pence? I question whether 0.1 per cent of the visitors to the National Gallery can tell the difference. The nation's duty is to spend money in helping the greatest number of people at a given time, and in bringing joy to them. The best works of art are not pie- d tures but living people and children.'
Another MP believed that the problem stemmed from `a group of rich people with little or nothing to do and with more money than brains [who] have raised the price of these pictures to a fictitious level and now the nation is called upon to spend this large sum on them'.
Happily these two masterpieces were saved for the nation.
The passage of history recently provided my trustees and me with further encour- agement on this issue. Last year, after a long saga, Canova's `Three Graces' was saved for the nation. This work, undoubt- edly important, was nevertheless by an Ital- ian sculptor and had belonged to a duke. This was paid for from taxpayers' money, an even more direct form of taxation than the Lottery — but apart from the Getty Museum's rage over the application of our rules on the export of works of art, the acquisition was, on the whole, welcomed.
Perhaps influenced by this success, we felt increasingly confident about the pur- chase of the Sir Winston Churchill archive, which subsequently so scandalised the tabloid press and The Spectator. For more than three years, we had restrained the Churchill family trustees from dispersing the archive by sale at auction but, once lot- tery monies began to flow, we had, to coin a phrase, to `put up or shut up'.
We felt that if anything was central to our heritage, then Churchill's papers span- ning 20th-century political life would quali- fy. Couldn't the papers have been copied and made accessible through digital tech- nology? demanded our critics. Yes, but surely there are certain areas of our life, our history and our national memory which are so fundamental that, if the resources are there, should be kept togeth- er in this country. For example, we had already saved icons of British history, such as the Wellington Dispatch and Nelson's first letters using his left hand, and we felt strongly that Churchill's speeches, `This was their finest hour. . . 'We shall fight on the beaches . . . ' and many others, fell into this category. We were asked to pay significantly less than the open market value, putting aside any value for the con- tested state papers, and the figures were confirmed by an outside expert.
It is a difficult dilemma and, as I have already pointed out, evidence about lottery spending does point to low-income partici- pants spending a higher proportion of their income on tickets than others. Each lottery distributor, including the NHMF, will have to take this into account in distributing the vast resources the Lottery has made avail- able; if we do not, it is likely that public support could well soon be lost and funds might then be redistributed in different directions, like health and education, under the control of central government.
The case, therefore, for a significant share of our resources going to disadvantaged communities in urban areas is a strong one and one we firmly believe in. But we should not respond to applications, howev- er worthy they may be, if they do not meet certain standards of quality. We should not lose our perspective about the purpose of the Heritage lottery fund and our sense of direction. We are not a substitute for gov- ernment expenditure. Huge as the sums are, £300 million a year for Heritage bears no comparison with overall government expenditure last year of £283 billion. Our revenues are likely to be less than, for example, the annual increase in expendi- ture of the Health Service alone.
Our purpose is to assist and promote the heritage of this country, and we should do this in a balanced and measured way and with courage if a work of art, historic house or any other object of heritage dis- tinction is there to be saved.
I would question whether there really is the collision of loyalties between `mass' culture, `high art', `popular' or `elitist her- itage' that is claimed by the high-brow util- itarians in the editorial offices of The Spectator. Inner city parks, for example, were one of the great Victorian initiatives and many are works of art in themselves.
But some of the most distinguished exam- ples, like Sefton Park in Birkenhead and the People's Park in Halifax, are shadows of what they once were, and with 85 per cent of the United Kingdom's population living in towns and an estimated 9 million people visiting parks a day, this would be a splendid area of our heritage to restore and transform.
Lottery money could be spent many times over in restoration, updating and supporting new uses for buildings whose Wow Atherton 's called for a leadership Contest...' original purpose has been lost. The govern- ment sector alone is withdrawing from its estate on a massive scale, perhaps unprece- dented since the Dissolution of the Monas- teries: the Ministry of Defence from Greenwich, Woolwich and Plymouth, the Ministry of Health from Westminster Hos- pital and Bart's, while the Lord Chancel- lor's office seeks to find alternative uses for distinguished 18th- and 19th-century law- court buildings.
But we would lose a vital opportunity if we did not think beyond restoration and updating. We must escape the negative aspects of heritage, the merely nostalgic, and the feeling of hopelessness and of a bleak future that comes from an over- absorption in our past. We must build, pro- mote and raise the cultural level of our country through the projects that we sup- port and not lose sight of the fact that countries are celebrated for their cultural strength, their poets, their painters, their museums and collections, and indeed we should add to great collections from time to time.
As E.M. Forster wrote in `Art for Art's Sake', `Ancient Athens made a mess but the Antigone stands up. Renaissance Rome made a mess but the ceiling of the Sistine chapel got painted.' So we should have both circuses and bread.
Lord Rothschild is chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.