Carl Mortished: We don't have to love big oil but we must take its money

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We need a new kind of money laundering. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about Mexican cartels. This is much more important than criminal enterprise. We need to find a way of sanctifying the ugly profit that makes sponsorship work. We need to turn that greasy wad of cash, stinking of diesel and stuffed in the till at your local petrol station, into a glorious bouquet of scented roses, fit to grace a reception at the Tate Gallery, or perhaps into the gift of a vase of sunflowers painted by a Dutch master.

Without a better laundry, there is a risk that the money will eventually run out. The pipeline that funnels a steady stream from the treasury of big business and its owners into the budgets of cultural and educational institutions will become clogged with impurities — anger, distrust and resentment. Ultimately, it will fail.

The Manchester Science Museum is under siege from climate change lobbyists to eject Shell from its sponsorship of the Manchester Science Festival, a 10-day celebration of science and innovation, organised by the museum. The oil company is sponsoring one of the museum’s exhibits about electricity and some people think it’s wrong it should have any role in this festival, given that its core business is non-renewable energy, sourced from hydrocarbons. 

Several of the festival’s partners who are campaigning against carbon have quit, and a petition calling for Shell to be removed has 50,000 signatories. 

Defenestrating oil companies from museums has become a pastime for some people. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague have ended Shell’s sponsorship in response to a vigorous campaign by climate change groups. 

Mauritshuis had said Shell’s support was crucial to its long-term future but a spokesman for Fossil Fuel Culture said it “would like to think museums made ethical decisions”. You would hope that museums make ethical decisions as well as sustainable and logical ones, too. You might wonder whether it is up to the trustees of a museum to decide whether the extraction, processing and sale of fossil fuels for use by billions of people on the planet is unethical. 

Burning oil and gas is blamed for climate change and that is a big problem. Some governments, including ours, are taking steps to reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons and many billions are being invested in alternative technologies. But is it unethical for a museum to take a donation from a firm that keeps the lights on and your car motoring?

BP is no longer sponsoring the Tate Gallery, a decision it made after a vigorous campaign. It is still supporting the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery but the armies of hypocrisy are at the gate. The agenda is to make oil the new tobacco, unacceptable in polite company. But there is a problem. Unlike oil and gas, tobacco is useless as well as dangerous. Still, we don’t ban it because we believe people have a right to choose to knowingly self-harm in the pursuit of a personal pleasure. Tobacco companies make huge profits and they are taxed very heavily; governments love the cashflow.

Some of that tax money makes its way into schools, hospitals and museums but we don’t see it. We just expect these good things to happen and to be somehow paid for. Fuel duties raise about £28 billion, or 4%, of government revenue in a year, and that doesn’t include VAT or the corporation tax extracted by government from oil company profits.

Museums and other cultural establishments such as theatres or classical music are a tiny piece of the economy, too small to register on the national wealth barometer. However, they punch way above their weight in terms of media time and public awareness. Grant-in-aid from the government purse pays for half of that at big establishments such as the British Museum which has a budget of just over £100 million. Entry is free, so the other half must come from somewhere; selling postcards, tea and cake is not enough.

If we kick out the corporates because their clumsy enterprise sometimes does harm, who will pay? Us or the government.  

So, in the carousel of our economy, those horsemen of the apocalypse come round, stuffed with cash: tobacco, alcohol, big oil and bad pharma. 

We don’t have to love big oil but we must take its money; it’s about recycling investment, the old pays for the new.

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September 12, 2018 |
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