Government considers New Deal of the Mind

The New Deal of The Mind has a simple objective, but you could hardly accuse it of lacking ambition. Its aim is to boost employment in Britain’s creative sector – for the good of the entire nation.

This initiative, not even four months old, already has the ear of Cabinet ministers, leaders of the creative sector and, perhaps most importantly, the guardians of the public purse-strings.

The New Deal of the Mind developed from an article written in the New Statesman in January by its former political editor Martin Bright.

In this piece, Bright suggested that cultural elements of the Works Progress Administration, part of US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s post-Great Depression New Deal, be adapted for the UK today.

Bright listed the achievements of the WPA: 3500 branch libraries created; 4400 musical performances every month by the Federal Music Project; a collection of oral histories collated which featured the narratives of the last living slaves.

He then put together five suggestions for a contemporary New Deal of the Mind: the establishment of the brains trust; a national oral history task force; a national family history project; a new deal for music and drama; and a geeks and hobbyists charter. ‘If there’s a minister out there prepared to take up some of these ideas,’ he wrote, ‘do bear me in mind.’

As it turns out, there were two. Both Culture Secretary Andy Burnham and Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell expressed an interest.

‘It was a think piece,’ Bright says. ‘I just threw it out there – it got quite an unusual response.’

Others who rallied to the initiative were Lorraine Gamman and Adam Thorpe of the University of the Arts London – who invited Bright to work alongside them at the Central St Martins College of Art and Design’s Design Against Crime Research Centre – and Catherine Fieschi, director of the British Council’s Counterpoint think tank, who offered initial funding.

Shortly after writing the piece, Bright had dinner with Chancellor Alistair Darling and his wife Maggie (‘Not an everyday event,’ he says) where the conversation turned to the New Deal of the Mind. Maggie, a former journalist with a personal interest in the arts, suggested a seminar at Number 11. ‘It grew far beyond the original idea,’ says Bright.

Organised by Bright, along with Gamman and her office, the seminar, held on 24 March, attracted a staggering array of politicians, artists, designers and cultural leaders.

Alongside Burnham and Purnell were Conservative Shadow Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and Lib Dem spokeswoman for youth and equality Lynne Featherstone. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights, rubbed shoulders with Royal College of Art rector Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, BBC director-general Mark Thompson, and Wolff Olins co-founder Michael Wolff.

‘It was a collection of the people who hold the steering wheels,’ Wolff says.

What emerged from this impressive meeting of minds is a plethora of initiatives aiming to stimulate employment in the creative sectors, while tapping into that industry’s resources.

Thorpe says, ‘We didn’t want the meeting to be a case of the creative industries turning up and just asking for money – we were looking for opportunities for design to help society.’

Thorpe and Gamman are working on a design strand of New Deal of the Mind. This aims to team up graduate designers with the third sector through an internship scheme, to provide employment for graduates, and to provide design support for the third sector, which Thorpe describes as ‘an area that needs help’.

‘If the Design Council’s Design Index Report provides evidence of how design can help the private sector, just think of what it can do for the voluntary sector,’ he says.

Thorpe says he hopes this scheme will be funded through the Office of the Third Sector’s £16.5m modernisation fund, which comes on-stream in the summer.

While other proposals such as the plans for an oral history taskforce, welcomed by Heritage Lottery Fund chairwoman Jenny Abramsky, and initiatives for film-makers to shoot movies about diversity, supported to the tune of £1m by Phillips, are being developed, two other key aspirations should particularly turn the heads of the design industry.

The first is an aim to reinstate a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, introduced in the 1980s, which saw the Government pay benefits to help unemployed people set up their own businesses. Frayling says, ‘I wrote references for about 60 Enterprise Allowance applications in the 1980s and early 1990s – they work.’

The second is a plan to take empty properties – Bright suggests high-street stores vacated by bankrupt retailers – and convert them into studios, incubation spaces or New Deal of the Mind centres. He says a New Deal of the Mind proposal, which features these two ideas and others, is now winging its way to ministers.

But the key thing about the initiative, as everyone is at pains to tell me, is its open-source nature – any potential job creation ideas will be welcomed.

‘We need to move quickly,’ says Thorpe. ‘We need to be decentralised, and we need to be bottom-up, not top-down.’

Gamman concludes, ‘[We want everyone] to contribute their views and proposals for a New Deal of the Mind that provides jobs and opportunities and social capacity at a time of high demand. Together, we are strong.’

original aims of the New Deal of the Mind

• A brains trust – Prime Minister Gordon Brown should set up a group of the country’s leading intellectuals to give him a broader cultural and historical perspective

• National oral history task force – graduates should be employed to collate the oral history of Britain’s recent past

• National family history project – the Government should restore funding for the National Archive’s online census

• The new deal for music and drama – there should be an expansion of singing, music and drama in schools

• A geeks and hobbyists charter – the ideas of the country’s amateur innovators should be turned into business

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