Sarah Ingham: Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

23 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

Never mind Rhodes Must Fall, a goodly percentage of the statues, murals and installations in the country’s public spaces should be consigned to the scrapheap.

As well as being a battleground in the nation’s intensifying culture war, the debate on public art went back to basics a few weeks ago, thanks to the unveiling of the Diana memorial statue. Suddenly we were also judging a piece on its aesthetics; how it looks – rather than how we look as we pronounce judgement.

Sadly, the public was none-too-impressed by the pewter Princess. Drawing comparisons with a traditional religious Madonna, The Times’ art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston elevated the debate. Her piece was however headlined “Laura Ashley monument is little better than the usual tat“.

In the hysterical rush to the barricades to defend or attack representations of Britain’s long-dead and usually long-forgotten worthies, few have paused to look – really look – at the works in question. Rhodes should fall – or at least be turned to face the wall of Oxford’s Oriel College – not least because it is a pretty dire representation of such a key player in 19th century colonial history.

There is a certain irony that the Croesus-rich racist white supremacist looks vaguely Asiatic and that his baggy suit is more Albert Steptoe than Savile Row. If the sculptor had been more skilled, gravy stains and dandruff could probably be discerned. This rendering of Rhodes is less The Three Graces than utterly graceless.

Why are Tory Councillors in Essex Censoring Artwork?” demanded The Guardian on Monday. The work in question – a small hexagonal-shaped rose garden framed by three ordinary benches – can be found in a park in Shoeburyness and is part of the Estuary Festival. An English Garden created by Gabriella Hirst is apparently a commentary on Britain’s 1950s nuclear weapons industry. This seems more than a bit of a stretch, even when we learn the roses are a breed called Atom Bomb.

It’s not this drearily anodyne artwork to which some are objecting but the wording on the accompanying plaque. But having to read a work rather than be moved by it is usually a signal to expect bad art and worse prose. It’s always contextualisation, never explanation.

Instead of asking why councillors are censoring artwork, we should be asking why they are not. Indeed, too often they are cheerleaders-in-chief for incongruous cultural blots on our landscapes and ugly blight in our town centres.

A tour of public art in Surrey is to realise that the closest most works get to great is the vaguely Matisse-blue of Bisley’s  quirky Millennium clock tower which seems inspired by a cross between a dovecote and Big Ben. Woking is littered with creepy, garishly-painted oversized figures. Sean Henry’s seven-feet-tall Walking Women is the latest in the series of “much-loved sculptures” declares #WeAreWoking.

If the aim is really “to create new, stimulating and high-quality environments that revitalise public spaces and recognise the importance of culture”, it has failed. The sculptures bring to mind a Zombie Apocalypse, perhaps written about by HG Wells. He is commemorated by the War of the Worlds Martian Tripod, a piece in chrome which is as breathtakingly bad as the giant cockerel with which a former council leader lumbered a Dorking roundabout. Staines offers us the Swan Arches which bring to mind Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad.

Surrey is far from the only sorry place where recent installations of art in the public realm are not fit to be placed near local war memorials. Thankfully, there is beauty in their very simplicity. They have stood the test of time and are a rebuke to “much-loved sculptures” and other pieces of junk foisted upon us.

Art is subjective. One woman’s Venus de Milo is another’s Aphrodite at the Waterhole created by Tony Hancock in The Rebel. Public art, however, raises questions that are too rarely asked. Who decides? Who decides who decides? Who’s paying? Over the last decade matters have been further complicated by the Community Infrastructure Levy, the charge levied on developers, often in addition to the existing Section 106 obligations. Has this caused an upsurge in “art” for art’s sake?

In a bid to curb the nuisance of noisy supercars racing through the streets of the Royal Borough, Kensington and Chelsea Council is seeking to extend its “acoustic camera” scheme funded by the CIL. Judging by the crowds drawn to Sloane Street where wannabe-Hamiltons regularly show off their wheels, the dozens of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens are perceived to be far more beautiful than any works of numerous works of art in the area, including the majestic Wellington Arch Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner. The cameras are a far more resident-friendly way to spend CIL than frittering it away on ugly installations.

Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth has recently been home to a giant blob of cream topped by a red cherry, a black fly (echoes of Damien Hirst 25+years ago) and a drone. The work of Heather Phillipson, it was called THE END.

If only.

Robert Halfon: 30 years ago, Major defied foreign policy orthodoxies – and saved thousands of Kurdish lives

7 Apr

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The Kurds are an ancient people scattered by historical omissions and commissions over four countries in the Middle East. The only internationally recognised federal unit is in Iraq, largely thanks to the actions of a pragmatically moral British Prime Minister just 30 years ago.

The initial spur was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that impelled an international and US-led military campaign to liberate the country. That was achieved by February 1991 and Saddam’s weakness, together with appeals for Saddam to be overthrown, prompted Shia uprisings in the south and a more organised uprising in Kurdistan.

A US General mistakenly allowing Saddam to use his helicopter gunships enabled him to crush the Shia rebellion and to turn on the Kurds who had liberated many cities.

That forced two million Kurds to flee to the mountains on the borders with Iran and Turkey, and some then entered those countries. The Kurds understandably feared further genocide as they had lost nearly 200,000 men, women and children to a genocidal onslaught three years before. Saddam’s forces also then used chemical weapons against Halabja and other towns as well as razing thousands of villages to the ground and forcing Kurds into urban concentration camps.

The 1987/1988 genocide, officially recognised by the UK Parliament in 2013, took place largely out of sight during the Iraq/Iran war. This time, BBC cameras broadcast the haunting scenes of death and misery for millions in the freezing mountains where 500-1,000 people were dying each day.

Conservative MEP Paul Howell, who visited the Turkish border, said ”On television, you only see the faces, you don’t see the ground. There you see human faeces, diarrhoea, sheep’s heads and entrails, it’s as close to hell as you can think of.”

The terrible scenes on our screens galvanized popular British action as concerned citizens scrambled to send 100 tonnes of vital provisions to the Kurds. Kurds in the UK, including Nadhim Zahawi, lobbied the British government while Kurds at home argued for immediate intervention. Some occupied Iraqi embassies.

MPs of all colours were horrified and demanded action. Conservative grandee Julian Amery argued that in any conflict between non-interference in the affairs of other countries and helping refugees in danger, we should back the refugees. Poignantly, Amery’s father was British Colonial Secretary when the RAF bombed Kurdistanis between 1922-1925 and said it was “a splendid training ground for the air force.”

A routine diplomatic response to this could have been to wring hands and send limited aid supplies but urge Iraq to resolve the issue. But new Prime Minister, Sir John Major, had other ideas.

Major was moved by the outpouring of public outrage. He said of Saddam that “Genocide was in the man’s mind, and it was certainly in the man’s character.” Hundreds demonstrated in Glasgow and heard a message from Major: “I regret that I was not able to attend but my thoughts will be with you and the people of Iraq who have fled to escape the brutality of their own government.” Conservative Prime Ministers don’t usually send messages to demonstrations.

He took the issue to Cabinet on March 21 – Kurdish new year, as it happens – and within weeks persuaded the European Union and the United States to implement his notion of a safe haven and no-fly zone for the Iraqi Kurds. They lasted until the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

Millions of refugees, some of whom had been in neighbouring countries since the 1970s and 1980s, returned to their homes in the largest refugee return since 1945. In 1992 they held elections to a parliament and formed their first coalition government on July 4. Despite a bitter civil war between 1994-1998 they laid the foundations of the modern Kurdistan Region.

Major’s actions defied foreign policy orthodoxies which respected sovereign powers and certainly saved thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Without such focused military intervention, the Kurdistan Region would not exist today.

Without a decent near-nation that is the Kurdistan Region, Iraq would have been more difficult to stabilise after 2003. Without the Kurdistan Region’s defiance Daesh could have expanded its so-called Caliphate from Mosul to Kurdistan and Baghdad. If this medieval, misogynist but militarily and digitally-sophisticated rape and genocide cult had accessed Iraq’s oil wealth and weaponry, there would have been more deaths there and on our streets. It could have sparked wider war in the Middle East. There wouldn’t now be a place that offers safe havens that may help stop Christians and other religious minorities being made extinct.

Britons can be very proud that Major quickly answered the calls of the Kurds at the moment of their righteous rebellion and intense suffering. Tony Blair deserves tribute too for continuing Major’s safe haven policy.

It has become fashionable to believe that the UK can only do harm in the Middle East. It is true that previous British governments carved up the Middle East to secure oil supplies and forced the Kurds into an Iraq that rejected their rights and existence. At a stroke, Major rebalanced the historical record and our country is now “working closely with our partners” in Iraqi Kurdistan as Boris Johnson recently told me in the Commons. Major’s hurried humanitarian actions averted disaster, saved an historic people and gifted the Free World a decent ally.

James Wild: A security, defence and foreign policy review is underway. Here’s how we can become a truly Global Britain:

14 Jul

James Wild MP for North West Norfolk was Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence 2014-17

“Smallest Army since Napoleonic war. Save the Marines. Protect our surface fleet. Focus on cyber, not boots on the ground.”

Recent press reports underline that a security, defence and foreign policy review is underway, and special interests are making their case.

In 2015, I advised the Defence Secretary on the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This took place against the backdrop an increasingly aggressive Russia and the appalling shooting down of MH17; Daesh having been close to the gates of Baghdad before the UK as part of the Global Coalition acted against them, and increasing state-backed cyber attacks.

After the 2010 review where painful cuts were required, the 2015 review was an opportunity to reinvest. However, there was something of a bidding war between No 10 and No 11 – with regular incoming missives.

No 10’s priority was doubling our drone fleet and Special Forces equipment and the carriers. The Treasury wanted more F35 jets earlier than planned and the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth accelerated. For the MOD, our priorities were restoring the Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability to respond to increased Russian submarine activity; a step change in offensive cyber capability, and investing in innovation and space.

The ambition was right and everyone pretty much got what they wanted. But to fund these enhancements, the MOD was required to agree to ever greater efficiency targets. These were stretching – and in some cases little more than a wedge against a budget line – but performance to deliver them has been disappointing. That has only added to pressure on the budget today.

The current review presents an opportunity to address the challenges in defence and to provide a coherent Global Britain strategy.

It will consider our multilateral partnerships including the proposed new D-10 group of 10 leading democracies (the G-7, plus India, South Korea, and Australia) and how to reinvigorate NATO. Such alliances will be increasingly important in the face of China’s breaking of international norms and hostile actions.

The work will define how to use the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to promote British interests and values. It can better align military training to take place where it supports our strategic objectives, has a deterrent effect, and is more cost effective.

Given my previous role, it is no surprise that I believe this is not a time to consider cutting the defence budget. The global pandemic we are experiencing could well lead to further instability and increased security and defence risks.

However, we need to be better at making choices. The usual bleeding stumps leaks have begun. These are in my experience partial, misleading, self-serving and will only stop if those responsible are held accountable.

Having said that, it is well documented that the defence budget is stretched. The National Audit Office has repeatedly warned that the MOD equipment and support budget – £180 billion over the next 10 years – is unaffordable. The Mr Micawber approach of hoping that something will turn up, reliance on efficiencies, or the infamous budget “fade” undermines the credibility of the budget.

In the past, decisions have been ducked by delays or deferrals that simply add pressure. Much as we may want to, the UK cannot do everything – the Permanent Secretary has rightly talked about the need to scrap some sacred cows.

It is encouraging that this review will involve a new, younger generation of chiefs. They bring fresh thinking on where the UK can add value, on the size and shape of our forces, and a greater focus on automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

There needs to be a review of the delegated model and the levers to hold front-line commands properly to account for their budgets. In the private sector, constantly over-spending your allocated budget would not be dealt with by a bailout from the finance department but by being shown the door.

The review needs to usher in a new approach to procurement. The MOD has been trying to get procurement right since Samuel Pepys’ time as clerk to the Navy Board.

In March, the National Audit Office found that only five of 32 major projects were probable or highly likely to be delivered on schedule. After joining the MOD, I was constantly told about endless contracts where the taxpayer carried the risk for overruns.

The reforms put in place during that time helped improve results with a move to sharing cost savings or overruns. But we need an agile model where MOD is close to companies that are innovating and designing systems that it can procure at the right time. The old approach of ordering a capability that takes 13 years from business case to full operating capability – such as the Watchkeeper surveillance system – should become a thing of the past.

One element of the budget this review must address head on is the nuclear enterprise. The Public Accounts Committee, which I am a member of, concluded the current funding regime does not work due to uniquely long project timescales and given the impact on the overall defence budget.

Annual budgeting rounds with the Treasury drive additional cost in a long-term programme and the need for in year savings even saw a contractor receiving increased fees when deferred work led to increase costs. There is a strong case for ring-fencing the budget.

An objective of this review must be to create a joint force with a multi-domain model that brings services and agencies together. This will enable what was called “full spectrum effects” and deployed highly effectively in defeating Daesh, and was subsequently rebranded as an apparently new “fusion” doctrine.

It should tackle duplication including: support services such as HR, legal, and admin; the multiple types of helicopters, overlapping ISR capabilities, and other equipment driven by a siloed service approach.

These defence reforms are required to better support the people who serve to keep us safe – everyone in our Armed Forces.

Inevitably speculation is focusing on the size of the regular army. This is the wrong approach – the question for the review is what should the shape and balance be for the challenges we are likely to face?

How can we work better with partners making the most of our respective capabilities? How can we increase the diversity of our Armed Forces with more female and ethnic minority recruits?

Ultimately you can cut your coat to your cloth, or have more cloth. The danger is to avoid making choices and go for an emperor’s new clothes approach.