NOTHING became the Arts Council's press conference in March so well as its stage management. It was a masterly display of how to deflect criticism while seeming to invite it, of increasing power while apparently giving it away, of altering everything while changing very little. It also showed how skilfully the British Establishment can keep its head while all around are losing theirs.

The star was Sir William Rees-Mogg, ex-editor of The Times, vice- chairman of the BBC, antiquarian bookseller and now Chairman of the Arts Council. He has a donnish way of answering questions lucidly, but as if he were also pondering higher philosophical matters. Some drunks have the same knack. The title of the Council's booklet, rushed out in forty-eight hours flat, was evidently his, The Glory of the Garden. His introduction began with a quotation from Kipling:

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made By singing, 'Oh, how beautiful!' and sitting in the shade While better men than we go out and start their working lives At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner knives

which is a fine and noble thought unless you happen to be one of the weeds.

By his side sat Luke Rittner, the Secretary-General, young, sharp, and chosen, it seemed, to be as unlike the last Secretary-General, Sir Roy Shaw, as possible. The relationship between them told us much about the new Arts Council. It resembled that between a benevolent landlord and the agent of his estate. Mr. Rittner knew the facts and figures, Sir William the grand design. In the past, Arts Council Chairmen have been somewhat avuncular figures, not excluding Lord Goodman, who murmured pious words about changing the priorities of government and always congratulated the Council officers on the grand job they were doing on limited resources. Sir William was different. Here was a Chairman who intends to chair from the front.

Off-stage, to the right, sat three rows of Arts Council officers and the Chairmen of the advisory panels, leashed in and waiting, crouched for employment, which never during the conference came their way-and may never, things being what they are, come their way again. The future of the advisory panels is in doubt, but when Sir William was asked about them, he brushed the question aside as one of those matters of internal organisation which would be resolved in due course. The panel Chairmen listened impassively, like a jury determined to hear both sides of the argument though the matter in question were their own execution.

But the silence from the panels was less deafening than the docility from the journalists, who had come armed, as it turned out, with the wrong questions. No Arts Council press conference has ever been heralded by so much advance publicity, much of it mistaken. A month before, we had heard that the Royal Court was to be axed. Letters of support poured in to The Times and Guardian, including one with the signatures of Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall from the nationals. 'Nice of them,' said one fringe director, 'to earmark the cost of a postage stamp from their publicity budgets. But the Royal Court was not to be lopped off, not yet anyway. Nor were Riverside Studios (although Sir William queried its administrative quality), the Hayward Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery, all confidently tipped as candidates for decapitation.

The fuss had all apparently been about nothing; and the confusion among the commentators was such that ten hours later, David Hare, who had been summoned to the Newsnight studios (why?), was still trying to attack Luke Rittner for decisions which had not been taken.

There were sacrifices, of course, but not those for which any of us were deeply prepared. The grants to literature were halved, but not abolished altogether, as had been expected. The London Orchestral Concerts Board lost 35% of its grants, which meant that one London orchestra, unspecified, would disappear. Some suburban reps lost their grants at Guildford, Bromley, Leatherhead and Farnham-which helped Sir William to meet the criticism that only left-wing companies were threatened.

Nobody was prepared to stand up and say that the Arts Council had selected the wrong victims, particularly because we were nearly all agreed that, if sacrifices had to be made, they were being slaughtered on the right altar, that of regional devolution. The whole purpose of the exercise was to achieve a shift in Arts Council resources from London to the regions of about 5% and nobody could quarrel with that, only with the thought that the chief spending culprits were the national companies, the four untouchables, which were duly left untouched.

Thus, the Arts Council turned the tables on its critics, who were left gasping and not a little grateful to Sir William for the civility of his manner. There was some forelock-touching among the questions asked. Sir William did not betray any satisfaction, but there must have been an inward purr inside the Mogg. He had achieved the result he wanted a slimmed-down Arts Council, with more money in reserve to meet any emergencies, with the advisory panels well in control and no damaging outbursts from the press. Above all, he had contrived a personal ascendancy, leaving the impression that he knew where he was going, even if nobody else did, and that the arts were best left in his hands, for who else could match his certainty, his philosophic detachment?

And yet of all the Arts Council's many silly statements, I suspect that The Glory of the Garden will eventually be awarded the palm. Despite its facts and skilful accountancy, it is profoundly out of touch with the reality of the current situation; and while Sir William was re-drawing the arts map of Britain, I instinctively thought of Napoleon on St. Helena or Sir Oswald Mosley in retirement, endlessly re-fighting lost battles, except that Sir William had not yet realised that they were lost. Whole regiments of ghostly soldiers rose up behind the subtitle to his document: The Development of the Arts in England-A Strategy for a Decade.

A week is a long time in arts politics and as evidence, I cite the shifting reactions before and after the Arts Council's press conference. A month is interminable, and a decade passes beyond the realms of human understanding. If we skip back a decade in the theatre, to 1973/4, what do we find? Neither the new National Theatre nor the Barbican had opened, all our estimates as to what they would cost to run were wildly inaccurate and Hall had just taken over from Olivier in circumstances of much acrimony. Bill Bryden had brought his strident Edinburgh Lyceum Company to the Shaw Theatre in his play, Willy Rough, and the Lyceum was tipped as the National Theatre of Scotland. Where is it now? Or for that matter the Shaw Theatre? The Manchester '69 Company had not yet gone into orbit in its space capsule at the Royal Exchange. John Gale was predicting the end of the West End by 1980; and the cautious punter would have put his money on the new network of regional repertory theatres as offering the best hope for British theatre in the future, while the reckless ones would have gambled on the still flourishing fringe movement, anarchic, experimental but, ah, what youthful vigour!

The whole theatrical climate was different. Few young directors wanted to be metteurs en scéne, as they do now. They wanted to work with small, tightly knit companies, democratic in structure, in theatres where the maximum seating capacity was about 150. If we shift back another decade, we'd discover that it was considered important to keep the commercial theatre and the subsidised sector in balance, with the civic reps complementing the 1, 2 and 3 touring networks, then in decline but showing signs of recovery; while by leaping over ten more years, we'd be wondering whether subsidy would ever become an important element in theatre financing.

To put forward a strategy for a decade suggests a marvellous conceit, a serene confidence to be able to predict events; and, to give one small illustration of how events might knock the strategy off-course, we only have to consider the consequences of the abolition of the Metropolitan Authorities and, no less important, the effects of rate-capping on the local authorities. Sir William was asked about the first point and answered that the government had indicated that it did not intend the arts to suffer when the Metropolitan Authorities disappear and that the Council took the government at its word. That may be so, but we have yet to hear about the exact provisions that the government will make. Sir William was not asked about the consequences of rate-capping, which could be even more severe. I suspect that the entire shift of resources to the regions will be quickly absorbed by picking up the bills left by the local authorities, who will have no alternative but not to pay them. Yet much of the strategy is based upon devolution to the RAAS (which are financed by the Arts Council, the local and metropolitan authorities), together with many other incidental recommendations-such as inviting the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council to support the Royal Court Theatre with local generosity so far unprecedented.

There are many other questions begged in The Glory of the Garden, not least the relationship between the live arts and the technological media; and it is typical of short-sighted, inward-looking nature of the report that the rapidly growing field of information technology should be regarded as a threat to the arts, rather than as an opportunity. But the main shudders, the chief chill in the spine, were aroused by this spectacle of Sir William as a grand landscape gardener. I suspect that there is an unspoken analogy in the corridors of power between the arts and the steel and coal industries. Just as Mr. McGregor has closed uneconomic pits to improve the profitability of the industry and to reduce production to the level of known demand, so Sir William has been appointed to achieve similar results in the arts world.

Unfortunately this analogy breaks down as soon as you look at it. There is no known public demand for the arts. There can be sudden waves of enthusiasm and equally sudden declines. If we avoid, as any prudent politician must, any sudden increases in the sums of public money available to the arts, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that therefore the arts cannot grow beyond the limits of the public resources available to it. It will grow, as it has done before, to meet the popular demand which only the artists can encourage. The Arts Council has yet to learn how to handle the mixed economy in the arts. It cannot cope with the changing interests, fashions, excitements, values, patterns of organisation, talent and inspiration. Its thinking is still administrative and institutional rather than flexible and creative.

But even if we concede that there is some merit in this approach, that the arts being volatile and temperamental need some strong administrative framework within which they can grow, how can we honestly respond to the thought of one man being so much in charge of the garden? We had a foretaste of what was to come in the modest suggestion that the axed London orchestra should move to Nottingham, which smacks of direction of labour. But the nation-wide choice of weeds and flowers is not one to be wished on any man, however capable and self-assured; and Sir William by downgrading the roles of the advisory panels has inevitably taken the burden of decision-making much upon himself. As vice- chairman of the BBC, he already possesses considerable influence over one large area of the cultural landscape. Can we stand aside and allow him to take more? And if not, what can we do about it?