Cultural democracy and the European Parliament

Today, I got to speak at the European Parliament, at a conference organised by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats. I’d never been before, and I was glad to have a chance to contribute as a citizen of the European Union while the UK is a member. The various presentations were interesting, but what I particularly liked was the democratic culture expressed in how things were done. Eight outside specialists (including me) were each invited to make a five minute presentation, while politicians from member states, MEPs and staff from the European Commission responded. There was no similarity to the inquisitorial nature of UK Parliamentary Select Committees. Instead, it was a polite debate about ideas, in the context of the Commission’s proposals for the next round of Creative Europe – rather too polite for Giorgos Grammatikakis MEP, who raised pertinent challenges to some of what was said.

It wasn’t the most exciting meeting I’ve been to and it can’t have made more than a few steps forward. But that’s democracy’s real task—to enable people to find common ground in their vastly dissimilar experiences and needs. It’s less about grandstanding than dogged spadework and attention to the kind of detail that some cabinet ministers seem to think beneath them. The attempt to work together by citizens of different states enrages some but it inspires me. They do so thanks to the interpreters working behind the glass in booths that line the room, and also because English is becoming the lingua franca of the European Union, especially among the younger generation. Our language will be one legacy of our 43 years’ membership.

There was one British MEP present, Julie Ward, who is a stalwart for culture and progressive causes. She told me that she’d moved more report amendments than any other British MEP and sent me a screenshot to prove it (at the end of this post). She asked me to publish it to show that MEPs do change things. And that’s the impression I take away from this short visit to the European Parliament: people working steadily for a better Europe, according to their ideas. In its way,  this meeting was also part of cultural democracy.

When I looked at the news on the train home, I saw Westminster politicians fighting like ferrets in a sack, even as they roll towards the cliff edge, cheered on by commentators whose ignorance is exceeded only by their conviction. European democracy is far from perfect—which is?—but I know which model I prefer.

Here is the text I read today (plus a few sentences I cut to keep to my five minutes).

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In June 1976, a conference of European Ministers with Responsibility for Cultural Affairs was held in Oslo, under the auspices of the Council of Europe. This gathering marked a turning point in European cultural policy. Until then, modern states had followed, to different degrees, three broad positions on culture. It could be a means to promote national identity at home and prestige abroad; a commodity, best left to the market; or a tool of ideology.  Fascists, communists and even, in the early years of the Cold War, the democratic West saw culture mainly as an instrument of state policy. The historian Tony Judt reports that:

By 1953, US foreign cultural programs (excluding covert subsidies and private foundations) employed 13,000 people and cost $129 million, much of it spent on the battle for the hearts and minds of the intellectual elite of Western Europe.

What changed in Oslo, in 1976, was that elected politicians began to consider culture not from the perspective of the state, or even that of the artist, but from the point of view of the citizen. The conference delegates were mostly from Western European nations that had integrated cultural policy into the post-war welfare state. They had hoped to democratise culture by making it more accessible, but the limits of that approach had become clear during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The Oslo conference found another path: cultural democracy. In the words of a preliminary report prepared for the meeting:

Cultural democracy implies placing importance on […] creating conditions which will allow people to choose to be active participants rather than just passive receivers of culture.

This was a radical idea, It suggested that everyone was able to create art, and that the difference between artists and other citizens, was not of kind but degree. The achievements of great artists were not diminished by the minor ones of less gifted people. Nor was the work of amateurs, non-professional or occasional artists worthless because it did not reach those heights, or even aspire to create in the same ways or for the same reasons. On the contrary, enlarging the frame of artistic legitimacy had the potential to enrich culture and bring unheard voices in from the margins.

It was such a radical idea that, although it was welcomed by many artists, especially the young generation inventing what they called community art, it was bitterly condemned by others, and especially those who were well established or who occupied leadership positions in cultural institutions. In 1979, the novelist Kingsley Amis fumed that the idea that everyone can enjoy art or be creative ‘is only possible if making mud pies counts as art, which admittedly is beginning to happen’.

This petulance may be amusing but, it is a travesty of what the culture ministers said or intended in 1976. They made many important resolutions. Here is the first:

Policy for society as a whole should have a cultural dimension stressing the development of human values, equality, democracy and the improvement of the human condition, in particular by guaranteeing freedom of expression and creating real possibilities for making use of this freedom.

This is a vital recognition. A freedom is worthless unless it can be exercised.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives us all, in Article 27, the right ‘to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts’. But how real is that right to participation to many of our fellow citizens?

The culture ministers also resolved that:

Cultural policy can no longer limit itself exclusively to taking measures for the development, promotion and popularisation of the arts; an additional dimension is now needed which by recognising the plurality of our societies, reinforces respect for individual dignity, spiritual values and the rights of minority groups and their cultural expressions.

Following the Oslo conference, there was lively debate about the desirability and implications of cultural democracy, but the turn towards neoliberalism in the 1980s brought that to an end. After the Berlin Wall came down, fewer people seemed concerned about culture’s political or democratic value.  What mattered now was the creative industries and their contribution to economic growth.

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Why raise these old ideas, forty years after the event? First, because I believe they remain valid and important. Culture is a common heritage and resource. It belongs equally to us all, and every citizen has the right to create it on her own terms within the democratic space where we negotiate our different beliefs and values. The primary task of cultural policy is to make that right a reality. Everything else, including the rights of artists or support for production, stands on that foundation.

Secondly, it matters because the social, economic, cultural and technological revolution we are living through is rapidly transforming the relationship of citizens to art and culture, empowering them to create, publish, share and critique it in ways that were unimaginable in 1976. Cultural democracy is happening all around us and policy needs to understand that reality if it is to respond well to its consequences, which it would be foolish to believe can only be good. The cultural interests of citizens are not always similar. Nor are they necessarily synonymous with those of artists, cultural institutions or commercial producers. The voice of minorities, specifically recognised in the Oslo resolutions, remains marginal and those who cannot represent themselves in social space are always more vulnerable. It is only democracy, with its faults and weaknesses, that can help resolve these tensions and competing interests.

Forty years after Oslo, Europe is a very different continent, facing equally different challenges. If culture is to be a source of strength, rather than division, it will be because its elected representatives have found ways of making the principles and values of cultural democracy a reality for all citizens.


  • Judt, T., 2005, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, London. Judt’s work, like Francis Stonor Saunders’, puts more recent anxieties about the instrumentalisation of culture into a broader perspective.
  • The quote from the commissioned paper, written by J. A. Simpson and entitled Towards Cultural Democracy, comes from Graves, J., 2005, Cultural Democracy, The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose, Chicago. I have still not been able to find a copy of the document itself. If anyone has one they are willing to share, I’ll be delighted to hear from them.
  • Amis, K., 1979, An Arts Policy?, London, Centre for Policy Studies. W
  •  Council of Europe, 1976, Report of the Ad Hoc Conference of European Ministers with Responsibility for Cultural Affairs, Oslo 1997 Strasbourg

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Julie Ward’s screenshot