At a time of elections politicians ask us to put our trust in them. They all lie about what they will do after the election in the hope of winning our vote, this being of course why the percentage of people voting goes down and down. It’s a dangerous game they play, stoking the disillusionment and anger that is fuel for extremism.
It is not just the politicians who lie, the very organs of state manipulate us with weasel words and, in some cases, a re-writing of history, a truly Trumpian distortion of reality. Fake news has nothing on a bureaucrat covering their back. “Ah,” I hear you say “the cynicism that comes with age”. perhaps a few examples from my own experience will illustrate matters for you, shedding light into murky corners.
There will no doubt be those who will deny my memories as false, as inventions to make a story, and it may be that my memories are not as reliable as they perhaps could be, but still I aver these events actually happened, and my stories are not embellished but are as factual as memory allows me to make them. So, three examples then of how we are betrayed and manipulated by government machinery.
First in the education provided to our young citizens. This story throws no credit on any part of the educational establishment. In the 1980’s I was a half owner and manager of a large design practice in London. We employed 20 or so people, and I had stopped teaching in art college to provide the management expertise in running the practice which my financial input had started. We were very successful, winning European Design Awards, so I became an elected fellow of my professional design body. Because of my teaching experience I was asked to represent that body on a newly set up quango advising small firms on how to fruitfully use the services of design practices.
Prior to this I had also been invited by a leading exam board to be one of four or five lecturers with industry experience to rewrite national guidelines for introductory national vocational art and design qualifications. I have always had a reputation for being outspoken, sometimes rashly so, often being described as ‘leading with my mouth’. So much so that I was surprised to be invited and after it became apparent that the suggestions this group was putting forward were constantly being batted back by civil servants as unsatisfactory I asked why I had been chosen, as my views (and I may add the views of the rest of the panel) were so obviously unacceptable to the civil service.
“Ah, Patrick, you see, we’d rather have you on the inside of the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in on us” I was told. Eventually there were only two of us left working on the proposals and so we called it a day. Sometime later the exam board called a meeting of all the national art and design course moderators to announce that they had to introduce into the qualifications a written test. The exam board had accepted that they had to bring the qualification into line with other ‘more academic’ qualifications, and to do this they would now be testing drawing with a written test. 200 attending art college lecturers, making up all the boards external assessors to Universities and colleges, made little protest. I stood and said “my flabber had never been so ghasted,” and was one of only a handful of assessors who resigned. To me it was akin to posing a French language test in German.
My stance came back to haunt me on the quango. Asked at the initial meeting to introduce ourselves, I asked the representative of the exam board, which was also part of the quango membership, if they had yet stopped testing drawing by written test. They were obviously embarrassed. At the second meeting I was taken aside and asked to resign as the exam board refused to attend if I continued as a member. I said ‘no’ as I was there representing my professional body. The meeting, fruitful, made progress which was welcomed by trade representatives but unfortunately the civil service decided to rid the machine of the grit by simply dissolving the quango and reforming it without inviting the professional body to send a representative.
The civil service seemed to me to have been controlling the exam board. I was told the reason the irrational stupidity of testing drawing through a written test had been implemented because the civil service told the exam board that they would get no government funds if they didn’t cooperate. Ten years of developing intellectually rigorous assessment systems were thrown away and the destruction of vocational art and design education began there and then.
The quango was obviously designed to deliver a result pre-determined by the twerps in Whitehall, and when it became apparent this might be more difficult than they wished, it was simply abandoned and reformed with a more compliant group.
This then is my first example of why government cannot be trusted: they manipulate systems to get the result they desire.
My second example is about broken trust. In 1978, I had a large painting exhibited in a northern town gallery as a part of a larger show. It came with me in 1980 when I took up post to become effective head of art and design in a London FE college, going on to create what was then the largest and most successful vocational art and design centre in London. The painting hung on my office wall -perhaps I should say I covered my office wall as it was about nine feet wide by six high.
When I left the college to build the design practice I asked if I might leave it there until I had somewhere to hang it, and the Dean of the area was happy to retain it. Unfortunately when I went to retrieve the painting four years later it had vanished without trace.
I remember a similar story coming from the director of a major northern gallery. Newly appointed he did an audit of the council collection and discovered some 40+ painting missing. He reported to a full town council meeting, explaining how he had given full details to the local police and that he was determined to get the Victorian masterpieces back.
There was a shocked silence in the council chamber, and then the mayor said he wished he had been consulted first, before the police involvement . It seems that it had become tradition for a newly elected councillor to choose, from the collection, an image to have at home. The councillors somehow were forgetting to return them. In the following weeks, the new gallery director discovered his inventory rapidly restocked with the missing works.
Often institutions think the pictures are just that and ascribe no value to them. My own may well have been valueless, but I remember on taking up post in one college being appalled to find boxes of prospectuses being leaned against a Bridget Riley, painted when she had been on the staff, and like my large painting, left to the college when she moved on. I prevailed on the college to ensure it was insured and protected from damage, and it is now proudly treasured.
This then is my second example, of how civil institutions, through their high turnover of staff and through ignorance, fail to understand, respect or appreciate the heritage they hold in trust for us all, damaging or destroying with casual disdain.
My third example is how all the above can be made worse by corporate attempts to protect and deflect criticism. This dishonesty seems to have become a mark of our establishment’s attempts to present themselves as virtuous beyond reproach. There are many example where Hospitals persecute whistle-blowers whilst destroying evidence of medical errors; Police forces that deny the death of prisoners in their charge as having anything to do with their misconduct and allow officers to retire rather than besmirch their reputations; there are probably more examples scattered throughout parliament, the Civil Service and state industries where no-one pays a price for covering up their mistakes, and billions of pounds are wasted.
Arts Council England runs several schemes to encourage and sustain young artists in their work. I received two grants to help me with studio space in Brighton in the early 1970’s, and in 1975 after moving to Lancashire I had a large painting purchased by the local outrigger of the Arts Council, the North-West Arts Association, based in Manchester. When the Arts Council announced the digitising of their collections of course I went looking to see what had happened to my painting. It wasn’t there. I spoke to a senior person from the Art Council at a gallery private view and was advised to contact the successor to NWAA, Arts Council (England) North.
I Have now been in touch with the organisation three or four times. The initial response was to say that I must be mistaken as NWAA didn’t exist when I said the purchase was made. Isn’t this an old ploy, tell the complainant they are making it all up? ACE said that they had no evidence of NWAA before 1979 so a purchase from me in 1974 could not have been possible. A quick internet search turned up evidence of NWAA in 1973, whilst my own cuttings library carried an article on the NWAA purchase from a regional newspaper.
Only after these proofs was a search made for the painting, but if they could not even find evidence of the organisation that bought it, how the hell did they expect to find the canvas? We trust these people with over £100 million of our money every year. Trust being the operative word, but seemingly the people we employ to look after this money cannot even find traces of their own organisations looking back, so are they worthy of that trust?
Quite how it encourages artists to buy their work then lose it I don’t know. To make the artist out to be a liar is a step further. Why do I care? Well apart from the fact I don’t like being airbrushed out of history, I find the arrogance of our public organisations insufferable. They seem impervious to carrying any responsibility for their mistakes, frequently being promoted ‘out of harm’s way’, or retired before penalties can be imposed. For their employees to call complainants liars without apology is also unacceptable.
This then is my third example, where self-preservation takes place of openness and transparency amongst those who spend our money.
The political parties worry about low turnout, yet suffer this culture of dishonesty and lies to continue, adding to it with their own dishonest representation of, for example, their expenses spending. History is also littered with examples of how they choose candidates with records of convictions for drunk driving, wife beating or fraud yet allow them to continue to stand to be our representatives. Election material is full of what is now called alt:news. Is it any wonder we continue to fail to trust them?
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