The day the Arts Council became an enemy of opera

The day the Arts Council became an enemy of opera


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2023

Another extract from Opera for All, Julia Glesner’s vivid new biography of Peter Jonas:

With William Rees-Mogg as Chairman of the Arts Council, this changed fundamentally. This former editor of The Times was a confidant of Thatcher and was in post from 1982 to 1988. Like Thatcher, he felt that ‘cultural types were paid too much money, were lazy anyway, just reds under the bed,’ Jonas commented. He met Rees-Mogg on his inaugural visit, when Lord Harewood accompanied him.‘Chosen advocates? They are our chosen enemies!’ Jonas said indignantly after the meeting.

Lord Harewood was also shocked by the hostile atmosphere, which he had never experienced before. Rees-Mogg had talked only about cuts and how everything had to change. Harewood was happy to retire. The climate had definitely changed. It was now confrontational instead of cooperative.

‘I liked Mrs Thatcher,’ Jonas said, ‘but I disapproved of her policies. With her, you knew where you stood: she was an enemy whom one could respect. The fronts were clear. I couldn’t stand Rees-Mogg at all. He should have been our advocate, but instead he was an instrument of the government. Keynes’s arm had been amputated!’ Jonas was also outraged by the Rees-Mogg’s son Jacob, who advocated a hard Brexit. Following Brexit had been especially difficult for Jonas.

Rees-Mogg senior was not the only new appointment after Thatcher’s second victory in 1983. The new Secretary General of the Arts Council was Luke Rittner, who held the post until 1990. When Jonas introduced himself in the winter of 1984, Rittner launched into a long and uninterrupted monologue about why a city like London did not need two opera houses. The whole thing seemed like an anticipation of the situation in Berlin in the 1990s, when Jonas, in his capacity as chairman of the Opera Conference, advocated for the preservation of all Berlin’s opera houses. Then, too, Jonas is said to have banged his fist on the table, cementing a reputation as a potential troublemaker.
1989 was also the year in which Jonas took advantage of a tiny, never-acknowledged mistake by Thatcher to make ENO the first foreign opera company of distinction to tour the Soviet Union. Jonas didn’t need to do much about it, he just made a phone call and had a meeting with Thatcher. But the enterprise wouldn’t have worked without his chutzpah.

During a meeting with Gorbachev in 1989, Thatcher had strayed from her notes and improvised on the new bond between the two countries and the ‘British Week’ to be held in Kiev and Moscow the following year. England would send the best of everything, the National Ballet and ‘our English National Opera’, Thatcher is reported to have said.

The transcript of the speech was never published, but the newspapers reported on it – and Jonas received calls from journalists who wanted him to confirm the news of the ENO tour. ‘Thatcher didn’t know her way around the cultural scene,’ says Jonas. ‘I suspect to this day that she mixed us up with the Royal Opera House.’

He knew what to do: he thanked Thatcher for her confidence and accepted the task. Thatcher’s office allowed him twenty minutes with the Prime Minister and he was briefed: he had to be quick and present a paper. This was a pushover for Jonas. ‘Clever as she was, Thatcher admitted nothing and promised to find the money for the tour. And at a time when she was cutting back wherever she could!’ Thatcher
kept her promise,


  • Herbie G says:

    As far as the arts are concerned, Thatcher and members of her coterie conformed with Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic – one who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. If it can’t be fitted on to a spreadsheet, then it’s not worthy of consideration.

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    Thatcher was a rather vulgar woman who cheered on the “loadsamoney” barrow-boy ethic at the price of culture.

  • Del-boy says:

    ‘Thatcher didn’t know her way around the cultural scene,’ says Jonas.”

    Hogwash Sir Peter.

    She was deeply cultured and knew many of the leading singers of her day, indeed attending opera at the Salzburg festival in her private capacity several times.

    The sneering of the metropolitan middle class against the humble Lincolnshire grocer’s daughter whom they could never forgive for being cleverer, never ceases. It’s just cultural racism – known in this country as “snobbery”.

    Rant over. Now you can all scream at me.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Confusing the two opera companies does not support “deeply cultured.”

    • Robert John Worth says:

      You are quite right: she was often at the ROH (once I saw her with the Russian ambassador)

      But she was wrong to insist that the Arts should be self-supporting

      Was she misled by the USA model? The UK does not have either their donors or their tax treatment

    • Tom Phillips says:

      What “race” distinguished her from her opponents?

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Where’s Sir Humphrey Appleby when we need him?

    • Sue Sonata form says:

      That series – both, in fact – was seriously intelligent and clever and we’ve not seen anything like it since, despite some embarrassing attempts to do similar things. We need that or Gilbert and Sullivan back to rip off the insane woke culture. There is much fodder in it for humour.

      Britain holds the monopoly on brave satire, going way back.

    • Scorn says:

      Too busy organising the resistance to the elected Government and answering to the EU?

  • Armchair Bard says:

    Fun fact. The Thatch album illustrated here was supposed to have a note by David Mellor. He accepted the commission, but in the event decided he was enjoying his Geneva hotel & all it afforded too much (still, at least no toes were sucked in the production of this CD).

    The American author & critic Henry Pleasants stepped in. Only after his death eight years later did it become known he had been CIA station chief in Berne then Bonn, 1950–64.

  • Tom Phillips says:

    Right wingers are by definition philistines.

    • Giles says:

      “Right wingers are by definition philistines.”

      With that level of half-wittedness I’m pretty sure the Left would pay you a salary to keep quiet.

  • Tancredi says:

    Appalled by the philistinism of Rees-Mogg. A broader problem with politicians is that they have occupations and political ambitions to pursue, and don’t take an interest in the arts – unless they have spouses who drag them to to the theatre [I’ve met a few.]