Richard Ritchie is is Enoch Powell’s archivist, a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate, and is author of Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs. 

The row over whether arts organisations such as the National Portrait Gallery should accept sponsorship from companies like BP may not immediately appear to carry political significance. But to so believe would be a mistake. Deep issues of principle are involved which should certainly interest the Conservative Party and its new leader – once he emerges.

The first concerns the role of energy companies. There is clearly a campaign underway to brand the oil and gas companies as the new tobacco or armaments industry. The suggestion is that no self-respecting person should own shares, work for or benefit financially from the operations of the oil industry. The Climate Extinction Rebellion is out to name and shame anyone involved with fossil fuels, and sees any action to disrupt their development as legitimate.

One might have thought that a political party which believes in free enterprise and the rule of law would have sprung to its defence. The energy industries have over decades provided an essential public service. No hospital or school could have operated, no fire could have been put out, no pensioner could have been kept warm, no supermarket shelf could have been stocked and no travel could have been undertaken without reliable and affordable supplies of energy.

Furthermore, one might add, no alternative to fossil fuels can be found without the profits from their development. But very few Conservative politicians are prepared to point this out. They think that to do so would place them on the wrong side of the climate change debate, and alienate young voters.

Now artists are jumping on the band-wagon – with BP especially in their sights. The arrogance of the artistic world knows no bounds. First, those concerned never ask themselves whether there might not be something morally reprehensible in living off state subsidies paid for by the poor, rather than from the purses of those with an interest in the arts. And when an alternative form of financial support becomes available, such as corporate sponsorship at the expense of shareholders rather than taxpayers, they claim moral superiority in arguing these funds should be rejected.

It does not occur to them that perhaps this is just what many shareholders would like to happen. Most major arts sponsorships are driven by the people at the top of corporate companies. Company chairmen and senior managers enjoy their night at the opera or at a private viewing, often with lavish hospitality, paid for at the expense of their shareholders.

But when it comes to ordinary shareholders and employees, it’s very different. They don’t enjoy the perks or receive the accolades. Indeed, many of them would be delighted if companies like BP were to desist from arts sponsorships altogether – especially if all they get in return is criticism from actors such as Mark Rylance, or from artists whose pictures would have no chance of public display if left to the market place.

If BP were to cancel all its arts sponsorship tomorrow, it would arguably make no difference to its sales or its public reputation. Long before the artists started complaining, there have been considerable misgivings within companies and amongst economists over whether any attempt to protect a ‘licence to operate’ via social programmes performs any benefit for shareholders. If these programmes are now to be held in contempt by the one group of people who really do stand to benefit from them, why on earth should the companies continue with them?

Where does government stand in all this? A Conservative Government should be pointing out that the climate threat can only be addressed by technological advances that only successful capitalist companies can afford. A Conservative Government should remind green campaigners that it is only through today’s profits from oil and gas that a solution to climate change can be found – moreover, without reducing us all to penury in the process. A Conservative Government should be reminding the country that the oil and gas industry is indeed an essential service to the public, without which life would be very grim indeed. A Conservative Government should be pointing out that if artists are so unwilling to accept the support of industrial companies, perhaps they should be prepared to live off box office receipts alone – and certainly not off the backs of poorer taxpayers who must dispense with the pleasures of seeing a Mark Rylance or an Emma Thompson on stage.

But the Conservative Party – and big business – has lost the will to say such things. When challenged, how nice it would be if a BP or Shell were simply to say to Rylance, and others of his ilk, that if they regard oil money as tainted, “that’s fine by us.” Shareholders would give out a genuine cry of relief that the charade was over.