The 'Minister for Culture Wars' prefers battle to the arts - Laura Waddell
It must be tricky to represent culture in a Conservative Government. Culture does bring in a lot of money - the sector generated £10.8 billion for the UK economy in 2019. The Tories know this but the budget cuts, closed down community centres and slashed arts lessons of the last decade are bleak, and only lip service is paid to improving social mobility in the arts. Johnson’s lot are generally only interested in the cream they can skim off the top of what culture is profitable, anything they can wrap up in the Department for International Trade’s brash, self-satisfied and alienating ‘Culture is Great’ branding at international cultural sector fairs. But the soft power of culture can go in multiple directions, and they don’t like that.
The rest of the time, the current UK Government can barely conceal their disdain for artists and their ilk. Culture is, after all, an unpredictable force, encouraging free thinking. And so now the UK has Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary who is suspicious of culture. Some predicted she’d focus on undermining the BBC during her tenure but so far she’s been making broad stroke attacks. During a ranting interview with BBC cultural editor Katie Razzle, Dorries, not a stranger to twitter spats herself, she grizzled about social media being ‘hijacked’ by ‘the left.’ If there’s one thing Ms Dorries doesn’t like, it’s opposition.The UK Government taking an increasingly authoritarian attitude to culture can be seen in how Ms Dorries differs from her predecessors, including Ed Vaizey who served under Cameron. Back in Spring of this year, he gave an interview to the Art Newspaper alongside Blair government culture secretary Chris Smith, where both voiced their concerns that the government was meddling too much, rather than taking an arms length approach to cultural funding.
Mr Vaizey told the Art Newspaper: “It’s one thing to have a bit of fun to feed the tabloids, quite another to start issuing directions to arm’s length bodies. It is a serious breach of the arm’s length principle, an attack on their independence and scholarship, and hugely damaging to morale at a time when the sector is already on its knees. It will have damaging long-term consequences if what were once curatorial decisions are taken over by ministers.”Ms Dorries has embraced her new role with a tone of petulant hostility and outlined her intention as warring with the left. Instead of harnessing culture’s potential for joy, pleasure, self expression, innovation, boundary-expanding, physical and emotional outlet – as well as the sense it helps us make of the world, or the empathy it is known to develop – our culture secretary’s nose is twitching to sniff out political dissent. It doesn’t bode well for her input into the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.Meanwhile, over 800 libraries across Britain have shut their doors since 2010. But don’t expect her to do anything about that kind of thing, or be a positive voice at the table for culture - Ms Dorries is too distracted by bringing her twitter fights to work.