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Jeremy Corbyn
[David Hunt:  Public Domain]

In a controversial cultural shift which can only serve to inspire the stereotypical British archaeologist, including this one, older white men with beards and no dress sense, suddenly seem able to become cultural action heroes, defying the odds, overturning the received wisdom of journalists and political strategists and inspiring a cross-section of the UK’s population, young and old, from Scotland to Islington.  It so happens that the older white man in question, the newly elected Leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, also has some interesting points of view on the place of culture in the life and political discourse of the nation, including this.

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“Government’s job is clear and simple – to protect the fragile habitat in which culture puts down its roots and then to stand back and celebrate the harvest. Culture grows out of community. It shapes and redefines community. In justice it belongs to community.”

However, the importance of the landslide victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party Leadership election in the UK goes far beyond this rather effective mission statement contained in Mr Corbyn’s policy document for the Arts issued as part of his Leadership campaign [ ].  It also carries some potentially important lessons for anyone seeking to conduct a grassroots campaign, especially a campaign which might uncomfortable for existing bodies in the heritage and archaeological establishment, who are defined by their places in a traditional hierarchy and are used to having a free run on policy matters, unaccountable to their wider constituency in their day to day activities.

Of course policy documents are one thing.  to become meaningful you have to be in a position of power to begin to turn policy into practice and that moment has arrived for Mr Corbyn as he takes up the reins of a Labour Party demoralised by May’s General Election defeat and divided by the leadership election and some of his shadow cabinet appointments.  Even so he begins his time in charge with a good deal of hope, at least on the part of many of those who voted for him and the reason for this may well lie in the nature of the campaign which brought him to the head of the Shadow Cabinet table.  Political analysts have suggested that one of the reasons the Corbyn campaign was so successful is that it tapped into two crucial areas.  The deep dissatisfaction of people with an emotionally cold, top down, triangulated presentation of PR “messages” which won’t frighten the voters and allied with this, a strategy which acknowledged that active local networking, coupled with the effective use of social media, could be used to bypass the traditional lines of communication and control within the Labour Party and deliver its own messages which would not be carried by the bulk of the broadcast media and a largely hostile Fleet Street.  For example, it has been noted that Corbyn’s was the only campaign to have a “donate” button on its website front page.  There was an assumption from day one that this would be, at least in part, a visibly crowd funded operation which the participants could literally invest in and take ownership of.  As a result the rest of the Party machine was not quick enough to realise that, as a member of the Shadow Cabinet told the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley “While we had our heads under the bonnet of the car trying to work out why we lost the election, these people jumped into the car and drove it off.”

It also seems to be that case that in this attempt at Grand Theft Auto, Mr Corbyn also seems to have succeeded in doing what the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014 also achieved.  That is to inspire thousands of people, many of them young,  many not regular participants in political discourse, and many not even regular voters,  not just to talk the campaigning talk, but to invest another three quid in order to go out and become active players in a political process dealing with complex issues in a grown up way.  It is this rediscovery of the latent desire in many people to be an active thinking participants in broader political debates and campaigns, and the innovative methods which were harnessed to allow them to do so, which could have far reaching consequences for the heritage sector as it recalculates its own positions in relation to the Government and the controversies which beset the sector from the churn of staff and consequent loss of capacity in local authorities and contracting units, through the perceived threats to iconic local and national heritage sites from insensitive developers and ignorant local planners, to the cynical commercialisation and commodification of heritage through the infiltration of bottom line calculations and in extreme cases, the profit motive, into decisions about heritage policy.

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The same kind of people who got Jeremy Corbyn elected have embarrassed the political class and required the Heritage establishment to at best play catchup with the public mood and at worst find itself completely out of step with it.

In his introduction to his Arts policy paper Mr Corbyn also wrote

” Our cultural heritage is being eroded by a reckless government intent on reducing the contribution of the arts to our society and culture to a series of value measurement methodologies.”

and there lies one of the potential reasons for a disillusionment with current heritage bodies which places them at risk from the kind of popular insurgency of the kind Corbyn’s campaign team masterminded.  For many reasons, some honourable, some pragmatic and some, almost certainly self-serving, cultural organisations, including heritage bodies, have participated in those measurement methodologies, in some cases acquiescing in their own neutering, or remaining silent, at least in public, because to openly criticise Government would be to invite the Chancellor to again deploy his nut crackers without anesthetic in a further public humiliation.  Not that such apparent acquiescence had much visible effect in ameliorating the pain.

While Chancellor George Osborne was engaged in the top down rigging of the planning system and emasculation of local authority archeology capacity while claiming to be acting in the cause of localism,  Vince Cable was placing a financial garotte around the neck of the Council for British Archaeology and twisting it and former Culture Secretary Sajid Javid was gerrymandering the division of the old English Heritage to get unproductive ruins off the Government books.  However,  in a roll call of recent controversies grassroots activism, undertaken by many of the same kind of people who got Jeremy Corbyn elected, has embarrassed the political class and required the Heritage establishment to, at best, play catchup with the public mood and at worst find itself completely out of step with it.

  • In Northampton the activism of a group of mainly local women in the Save Sekhemka Action Group [ ] exposed the back stairs dealing of Northampton Borough Council and its then Leader, David Mackintosh MP, which saw a culturally priceless example of Egyptian Art, the Old Kingdom statue of Sekhemka removed from a public museum and sold to an anonymous private collector.  The work of SSAG turned a local scandal into an international cause celebre which Arts Council England, the Museums Association and the Government ultimately had to take up before it did even more damage to bi-lateral relations with Egypt.
  • The Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort [HOOOH] campaign [] which has had the courage of its convictions and engaged the media and nationally recognised and respected experts as it has fought the damaging plans to develop the environs of the nationally important site Old Oswestry site.  Plans which Historic England has endorsed with a few, the campaign argues too few, caveats.  Old Oswestry is now a national issue and is breaking through on the broadcast and written media.
  • Using the motto
    “Do not be afraid to go in where others demur. Saving and finding a new use for a historic building is more important than profit.”

    The Spitalfields Trust has, so far, seen off British Land’s attempts to “redevelop”, actually destroy more than 70% of, a conservation area in Norton Folgate area of Tower Hamlets, even when as the satirical investigative magazine Private Eye observed, Historic England’s London office seemed to side with the developer.  The Trust is now promoting its own sustainable plan which preserves 95% of the fabric of the conservation area and responds to community needs for affordable accommodation for both business and people [] .

  • The Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee and its supporters managed to turn another back stairs deal brokered by Tory Party cronies to allow Odyssey Marine Exploration to salvage and potentially exploit commercially HMS Victory, the maritime military grave of 1100 Royal Navy personnel lost in 1744, into a cause celebre for not for profit, maritime archaeology conducted in the public interest.  As a by-product of its research into the Victory, the campaigners worked with media outlets, including this blog and exposed Odyssey’s alleged underpayment of over $4 million due to the UK Government from the sale of the silver from SS Gairsoppa and the Government’s humiliation in having to pay a failed bidder for the same contract £15 million plus costs because of departmental failures in the handling of the post bid process  [see thePipeLine passim].
  • The Garden Bridge, where the Bullingdon Club cronyism of Boris Johnson and George Osborne in pushing through and funding Joanna Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick’s absolutely fatuous £175 million pair of copper clad planters in the River Thames has been exposed and opposed by activist Michael Ball and Thames Central Open Spaces  [] and deliciously  satirised and ridiculed by artist Will Jennings and his “Folly for London” competition [].

This experience demonstrates that representative organisations in the cultural sector, including heritage organisations, now have an important choice.  To acknowledge the status quo of realpolitik and continue to work with the Government as junior partners subject to being put back in their box whenever it is convenient or they get too uppity; or to occupy a spot between political blocks which to misquote Archimedes, is firm enough to lever over the political world whoever occupies No 10 and No 11 Downing Street.  For that leverage to be effective the platform it is based on has to be built on the foundations of professional expertise and a willingness to say no when a disaster in waiting like the Garden Bridge comes along, coupled with the willingness to seek out and welcome knowledgeable, committed community based activism.  It is also essential that the established heritage bureaucracies relearn the ability to be nimble enough to recognise and respond to issues as they arise and humble enough to realise that they cannot always be ahead of the game and genuine leadership sometimes means being responsive to the led when they demonstrate they know better about an issue than you do.  If they don’t respond to the new climate they risk being outflanked and left standing, looking as impotent as the Blairite Labour Party machine looks after this weekend.  There is also a deeper strategic reason for adopting this kind of responsive, more openly democratic approach.  Assuming the system will remain ever thus you risk being run over and left as bureaucratic roadkill when the consensus changes as it did so painfully after the 2010 General Election and the advent of George Osborne’s ideological austerity masking a ruthless desire to shrink the State.

By failing to publicly take up these issues and defend what is so clearly the public interest, the representative and regulatory bodies risk losing all credibility and trust.

That said, this article should not be read as an endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, or a comment on his policies, either for or against.  The broad basilica of the “Heritage” sector contains an even wider spectrum of political and cultural opinion than the Labour Party, where if you put two members in a room you might get at least three opinions on policy , if not more.  Indeed, the Cameron Government is currently promoting its own consultation with the aim of taking a cultural overview ahead of a potential White Paper on Culture to be launched by the Department for Culture Media and Sport [].  In so doing it has invoked the, for the cultural world, legendary figure of Jenny Lee, widow of Aneurin Bevan and creator of Britain’s only previous White Paper on the Arts.  However, this careful packaging of the consultation in terms of territory previously occupied by a Labour Party legend masks the fact that this is a consultation on the Government’s terms designed to deliver answers on the Government’s questions.   The questions are not asking what do you want and need so much as “where do your answers fit into our agenda and worldview?”  Indeed, the questions are largely utilitarian and the third of four key themes is based on the assumption that new funding models are required to build financial resilience to enable them to “…survive and prosper in a tough economic and financial climate.” This means that, while any recognition of the importance of culture and heritage is to be welcomed and must be responded to seriously, it is abundantly clear that what the Government clearly wants is models which conform to its Neo Liberal economic view and remove the State’s responsibility for funding.  Cynics might argue it is a bit late to be consulting on this because the Treasury has spent the last five years trashing the previous consensus that some things, such as the best of our historic buildings and archaeological sites, were funded by the State as a public Good and has put nothing in its place except back of the fag packet calculations on the future funding of an independent English Heritage and pleas for philanthropic donations which tend not to have much traction with regard to a remote standing stones, or ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit, but which cannot support commercial wedding hires and a shop to generate tourist footfall.

It is the serious grassroots anger, frustration and which these actions have provoked  which makes it increasingly dangerous for the heritage establishment to act as unaccountable participants in a political machinery which discounts what those people at the grassroots are saying.   A heritage version of Doctor knows best.  Any responses that heritage bodies make to the DCMS consultation must be developed in a two-way debate with the grassroots and must be capable of being carried and supported by the vast majority of those grassroots and then monitored and reported so that the Government is seen to act on the consultation.

Neither can such bodies afford to remain silent and apparently thus consent, in the face of the numerous randomly occurring, but increasingly contentious issues which their constituency finds important.  For example, when the Temporary Export Ban on Sekhemka was imposed by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey because a committee facilitated by Arts Council England declared it of supreme national importance, it was ludicrous for ACE to then argue it could not step in to help the Minister broker a deal with the new owner which would keep the statue in Britain.  The reason for ACE’s silence was supposedly because it had to administer the Waverley Rules on the export of culturally important artifacts in an even handed way.  However a measure of the absurdity of the situation is that Northampton Council was stripped of its museum accreditation over the unethical sale of Sekhemka by, you’ve guessed it, ACE.  This was using bureaucratic convenience to duck a difficult issue.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, far from tying itself in logical knots as ACE has over Sekhemka, it is difficult to remember an occasion where the Leadership of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists ever took a principled public stance on anything, let alone put up the money for a legal challenge to a damaging or potentially unlawful aspect of Government Policy.  In the case of HMS Victory 1744 that was left to an individual who took sought a Judicial Review of the case with the result that the Ministry of Defence was forced to beat a humiliating retreat, so legally flawed was the process it had initiated.  By failing to publicly take up these issues and defend what is so clearly the public interest, the representative and regulatory bodies risk losing all credibility and trust.

Name the last Quantity Surveyor, Property Developer or Lawyer to become a cherished, instantly recognisable national figure in the way the late Professor Mick Aston of “Time Team” was?

It must be stressed  this is not a call to rush to the barricades and bring down the Government.  That kind of romantic view of revolution is fine on the West End stage in “Les Miserables”, but while many archaeologists might indeed be miserable in the French sense of feeling like a poor and downtrodden underclass as a result of the pay, conditions and career prospects across much of the sector, there is currently very little chance that the workers utopia will be ushered in by ACIfA’s and MCIfA’s blocking Whitehall.  If you recall the 1832 Revolution depicted in “Les Miserables” all ended in tears anyway, while the famous satirical song by passionate socialist singer songwriter Alex Glasgow suggested that for the British Revolutionary Left at least the revolution would only start after the pub closed [ “As soon as this pub closes [the revolution starts]” [].  What is being suggested here is that the heritage sector stops apologising for existing and attempting to mask that insecurity by trying to be just like everyone else in a suit; so that the sector can arrive at the Whitehall table as an equal, representing a body of expertise from a significant industry and contributor to the economy with a large popular constituency and positions which deserve to be taken seriously.

The “Mortimer Group” [] of archaeologists and community activists  has urged this kind of “Greenpeace” or “38 Degrees” style of confident, informed mass activism for heritage ever since it was formed in the wake of the “Cuts” debate at the Current Archaeology Conference in January 2011 and at the time of writing the Council for British Archaeology is at least embarking on this learning curve with its recent moves to develop and facilitate a network of local activists, supported by training and networking workshops and on-line resources.  In a further indication of people in the heritage sector setting out along this road, a group of activists, middle ranking museum professionals, and journalists met recently in London to discuss the mechanisms for a similar early warning, activist network for museums, primarily aimed at heading off another Sekhemka style incident.

However, this is just one body and one fledgling initiative.  If the leadership of the heritage sector’s other mass membership organisations such as the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists [CIfA], the newly charitable English Heritage and the National Trust, do not recognise how the world has changed and embrace the new reality of informed and committed ground up, issue based campaigning, then they risk being left behind, falling seriously out of step with the bodies with whom they share members such as the CBA and RESCUE, let alone with the individuals who are members of nothing, but who care about heritage and will be inspired to embrace cultural and heritage activism by the right cause such as Spitalfields or Old Oswestry.  This is especially true of the young and social media savvy person who has grown up in the world of Instagram, big data, citizen reporting and campaigning based on constantly developing and morphing coalitions fighting specific issues, and is repulsed by the cynical pushing of Party lines and messages on today’s comm’s grid.

However, this message will only work if these bodies accept that Archaeology and Heritage are not a clearly definable profession such as Architecture, the Law, or Quantity Surveying.  Of course professionalism and the highest standards in work are important, but in archaeology and heritage we are dealing with a rich, diverse, engaging humanity, not a cold quantifiable science, mathematical precision, or an area like the Law where a misplaced comma can deny natural justice.  Above all, we are working in a field people care about, even love, often to the extent they will make sacrifices and take risks for it.  Participation in Archaeology and Heritage is potentially one of the richest and most rewarding of human endeavours, which is why most of us become involved in it in the first place and it is socially and politically foolish in the extreme to try to pretend archaeology is just another lettered profession to be fitted into a self-perpetuating establishment jigsaw. Gaining a Royal Charter for archaeology is an achievement, but it must be asked, an achievement for who?  Certainly not the wider constituency for heritage and archaeology who find themselves priced out of independent research by pay wall journals, discouraged from undertaking fieldwork for lack of resources and mentors to supply easily teachable skills and alienated by policy documents which might be laudable, but which are seldom, if ever, translated into human.  Put simply, name the last Quantity Surveyor, Property Developer or Lawyer to become a cherished, instantly recognisable national figure in the way the late Professor Mick Aston of Time Team was?

As Marx [Groucho] said in that famous telegram to the Friar’s Club


Worse, if this image of heritage sector organisations as remote parts of the tick box, machine political and development establishment takes hold, they could begin to be seen as enemy forces on the wrong side of every argument from a local, “Barratt Box”  housing development on greenfield promoted by a lazy developer who argues it is “sustainable”, to HS2, Old Oswestry, the Garden Bridge and the Stonehenge tunnel.  If that happens they would gain more popularity and respect by standing in a field whistling “Dixie” for all the impact and respect they would have.  Or perhaps, because we are talking about a politically safe, culturally bland, English heritage sector, they would probably be whistling “Greensleeves” and clutching a pot of overpriced artisan fruit preserve purchased from the “visitor experience” shop.   Of course the kind of quantifiable financial contribution to UK PLC which can be delivered in the footfall and sales figures of the shop, might be just what certain parts of the Government hope to see, but it is certainly not what increasing numbers of people all over the UK either want or will allow, as those grassroots campaigns demonstrate.  Therefore it must be the case that if there is ultimately to be a separation of heritage bodies from the consent of the grassroots of people who care about that same heritage, our community and profession will have become  a house divided, with archaeologists and heritage professionals lining up on both sides of the barricades.  In that circumstance, as newly endorse presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 when contemplating the breakup of the Union ” A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

To end on a more optimistic note.  There is another  old joke about Hollywood, which is probably also true of politics.  “All you need to succeed in Hollywood is sincerity.  If you can fake that you can do anything.”  Of course genuine sincerity can be even more powerful and if bodies in the heritage sector can work together with the grassroots to develop an inclusive, brave and sincere approach to the defining issues regarding our historic environment and heritage culture which we face as a community who knows what can be achieved.  Perhaps even a political and cultural earthquake of Corbynesque proportions?  In that case the importance of Mr Corbyn’s election is less what he will achieve in his new office, however long that is, but rather that how and the why that it happened at all.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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