Monday, July 26, 2010

Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights?

Things in the UK just keep going from bad to worse. Last week, while we were all being stunned into silence by the revelation of David Cameron's Big Society, the head of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, cheerfully announced his contribution to the Government's austerity drive. He was going to get rid of 35% to 50% of his staff. You'll recall that that the UK Treasury had proposed cuts in departmental budgets averaging 25%, but it was clear that with many departmental budgets (e.g. Health) ring-fenced, the cuts would fall more heavily on some departments than others, at levels up to 40%. DCMS was one of the most likely targets for these heavyweight cuts.

According to the Guardian, some departments have failed to meet the Treasury deadline or are refusing to produce 40% cuts, saying it is not realistic to do so, and therefore a waste of time. By contrast, Hunt has been proactive and not only delivered his proposals for savings early, but also at a more sweeping level than asked. There's method in this ministerial hari kiri - ministers who settle early with the Treasury have been told they can then sit on a body set up to arbitrate on departments that refuse to settle until September or October.

Having butchered his own department, Hunt then moved on to the various agencies that come under its aegis, and the news for museums is not great. Today, he announced a proposal to abolish the Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council (MLA), by April of next year. To put this in context for American readers, this is the end of the UK equivalent of IMLS. The only unified body dealing with best practices in the museum and library sector is going to be dismembered and some of its responsibilities divided up among other agencies. The other responsibilities will presumably be dropped. Unless, of course, they are picked up and done for free by part of the Big Society.

Responding, MLA issued a press release in which they rather sadly detailed all of the efficiencies they had made or planned to make. Not efficient enough apparently. Hunt, of course, believes that abolishing MLA (along with the UK Film Council and a bunch of other public bodies) will "deliver fantastic culture, media and sport, while ensuring value for money for the public and transparency about where taxpayers' money is spent." In other words, duplicating functions across a bunch of agencies is being touted as more efficient than centralizing them in a single body.

It's not clear yet what this means for initiatives supported by MLA, such as the ground-breaking Renaissance program aimed at transforming England's regional museums. Culture minister Ed Vaizey is quoted by the Guardian as saying "there is now an opportunity to integrate Renaissance.... into the wider cultural framework". Which I think is probably code for "close it down."

Part of the problem is that Hunt has painted himself into a corner by committing to continue publicly-subsidised free entry to national museums, on the basis that it improves tourism and the wider creative economy. This removes one potential source of revenue that could offset public spending. The more alarming prospect is that the cuts in departmental budgets are a pre-emptive measure, aimed at reducing the political blowback from impending deep cuts in arts and media budgets.

Once again, I urge American readers to take notice. There are plenty of deficit hawks in US politics; the news from the UK shows what happens when you vote them into power.

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