Can the new Culture Minister solve our heritage puzzle?
AFTER a long period of stability, it’s nearly all change at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). It’s goodbye to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, who had been in post for six years, so was getting towards his sell-by date anyway (and also had the poor judgment to back Michael Gove). In spite of his nickname of ‘Lazy Vaizey’, Mr Vaizey was both energetic and popular. Also departed is his fellow Goveite and boss John Whittingdale, who had held the top job as Secretary of State for just over a year, but was an impressive performer, helped by his long experience as chair of the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee.
In spite of its significant and wide-ranging responsibilities—broadcasting, broadband, museums, the Arts, tourism, heritage and, of course, sport—with something like a mere 400 staff, DCMS is among the smallest Whitehall departments and seems to have little traction with the all-powerful mandarins at the Treasury. Consequently, ministerial office at DCMS sometimes seems like a way station for MPS on the way down or out, yet many significant figures have held jobs there, including Chris Smith, Jeremy Hunt and Tessa Jowell.
Given the fact that DCMS has the pastoral and practical care of such a number of our greatest national assets, from the BBC to Stonehenge, it should command greater respect and attention than it often does. It is fashionable to disdain politicians and state intervention in many aspects of our culture is rapidly declining, but, nonetheless, what the ministers at DCMS do matters a great deal. Thanks to relentless lobbying and sympathetic ministerial ears, national museums have flourished in recent years and are much admired at home and abroad.
What ministers don’t do matters a great deal as well. For some time now, they have pretty signally failed to offer heritage the sort of support it needs. The Treasury’s will to ‘rationalise’ VAT and DCMS’S failure to fight that corner adequately meant that full-rate VAT was imposed on the repair and maintenance of historic buildings in probably the most heritage-unfriendly act carried out by any government. This has been bad news for owners of historic houses—most of whom are not grandees —who have also not been helped by inaction on the issue of heritage maintenance funds.
Our new Secretary of State at DCMS, Karen Bradley, the MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, lists her recreations in Who’s Who as ‘travel, wine tasting, cooking, puzzles’. Perhaps not the most cultural credentials, but what we need in a Culture Secretary is not necessarily someone who knows the difference between Karachi and the Carraccis—we require a tough, energetic and articulate champion whose views count in the Cabinet. When Tracy Crouch arrived at the department last year, as a junior minister, she had few obvious cultural credentials, but she zoomed up a steep learning curve and it’s good to see that she’s staying at DCMS with the continuing responsibility for tourism and heritage.
Our new Prime Minister has assembled a Cabinet of competence rather than charisma, so perhaps we should have little doubt that the new Culture Secretary will have sufficient political smarts to do the job we so urgently need her to do. Adequately supporting our heritage in an age of austerity will certainly test her love of puzzles.