TAITMAIL Cultivating Ms Donelan
New culture secretaries used to have to endure a rather tiresome game at the hands of arts correspondents when they were routinely asked what the last film/play/exhibition was that they saw. It was a small test of their cultural credentials which they always failed, more pressing questions no doubt being on their minds, and so they started their (usually short) terms of office with a small amount of egg on their faces to the amusement of a handful of hacks, and no-one else.
Can’t happen now - culture secretaries don’t have press conferences anymore, and anyway nobody believes the job any longer has anything whatever to do with the arts, she has an array of junior ministers to cover all that. If the incumbent feels they need to explain themselves to the outside world they’ll do it via a ghosted article in the Daily Mail.
And so we have our 11th Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 (15 since the post was invented 25 years ago), almost one a year, and her biography suggests that the latest appointeet is likely to be as engaged with culture as her predecessors.
AI had a rather more significant amount of egg decorating its features on Tuesday night when, following usually impeccable secondary information, we confidently reported that Nadine Dorries’s successor was to be Kemi Badenoch. A couple of hours later it was reported that Ms Badenoch was indeed in the new cabinet but as international trade secretary, and later it emerged that the DCMS portfolio had gone to a 38-year-old former marketing executive called Michelle Donelan. Moral, never rely on secondary sources.
Donelan was one of the last cabinet appointments to be announced, almost as an afterthought. The post was created by Tony Blair (John Major’s version was Secretary of State for National Heritage) for Chris Smith who did it for four years, his successor Tessa Jowell for six years, but after that it was a waiting room for the lift up or down the edifice of government: James Purnell, eight months (before becoming work and pensions secretary); Andy Burnham, six months (health secretary); Ben Bradshaw, 11 months (to the 2010 general election); Jeremy Hunt, 30 months (health secretary); Maria Miller, seven months (resigned over expenses claim); Sajid Javid, 13 months (business secretary); John Whittingdale, 14 months (fired by Theresa May); Karen Bradley, five months (Northern Ireland secretary); Matt Hancock, six months (health secretary); Jeremy Wright, 12 months (fired by Johnson); Nicky Morgan, five months (made a peer); Oliver Dowden, 17 months (Conservative Party co-chair); Nadine Dorries, 12 months (resigned).
Dorries had not fallen out of favour, it seems, but is expecting a Johnson resignation peerage and looks forward to the opportunity of adding to the 15 romantic novels she has written. But her gaffes and loose grip on her brief meant her department wasn't taken seriously around the cabinet table, and the main achievement she claimed in her resignation letter was rearranging the Arts Council’s money so that more of it went to the regions, the DCMS contribution to levelling up, something which had long been already under way.
This is not Michelle Donelan’s first time in the cabinet. In July she was education secretary for about 36 hours, appointed from being higher education minister to replace the exasperated Nadhim Zahawi fleeing in the Chris Pincher scandal, then realising her error and quitting to help get Johnson to stand down. Why this made her attractive to Liz Truss is not clear, but it is almost not worth saying that her connections with culture are tenuous. They amount to having represented World Wrestling Entertainment Magazine.
We have to hope that this does not mean that she is a lightweight. The DCMS is supposed to be the guardian of a vital economic sector, the multi-billion pound creative industries, the fastest growing in the UK economy and worth £112bn to the Treasury in 2019 alone, 15% of the gross value added. Donelan’s new department supports 47 agencies and public bodies in an industry that has 14% of the national workforce. DCMS was set up to “protect and promote Britain’s long and varied cultural and artistic heritage in all its forms”, but now it also has a large chunk of what the Home Office used to do, overseeing all of the British media, regulating data and technology companies and coordinating cyber-security. Not to mention the charity sector and all of sport.
Had Badenoch been the subject of this piece it would have been easy to see why she had been chosen to succeed Dorries - both culture warriors with little time for the BBC and inclined to wrap themselves in the union flag at every opportunity - but Donelan’s stance is not known. Will she continue with the selling off of Channel 4 and the end of the BBC licence fee as her priorities? Will she carry on investing cultural governance with right wing activists? Will she continue to try to shorten the arm's length principle with the Arts Council?
This year from her education department position she has ventured tentatively into the cultural battlefield to criticise universities’ right-on labelling of Orwell’s 1984 as “offensive and upsetting”, and to oppose the removal of Larkin and Owen from the GCSE syllabus in the interests of diversity, admittedly low-hanging fruit.
But will she realise that this is all a side issue and that potentially the arts, without which the cultural industries could not exist, are in a worse place now than they were two years ago when the then chancellor found £2bn to ensure theatres, concert halls and galleries stayed open? The Arts Council is putting the final touches to its grants list for the next three years, but with an annual budget worth about half what it was in 2010, and with arts organisations facing the prospect of a 400% increase in their already exploding power costs this winter – whose audiences can no longer afford to buy tickets - many venues will have to close, possibly permanently. Meanwhile, freelance artists already on the breadline are confronting inflation of 10%+ on materials and living costs they can't possibly cope with.
And will the new culture secretary break the mould of her recent predecessors and be the champion who, instead of switching funds from one place to another, waging an “anti-woke” war and harassing public broadcasting, goes to the new chancellor with the figures and a passion to plead for the future for the one industry in which, despite being hogtied by Brexit, this country still leads the world?