It was apt timing to be travelling to Scotland for the IfA conference on Wednesday at 7 am when the news started to arrive that Maria Miller had resigned following a week of intense pressure. Not only was I entertained on the the train, but it set the scene for the introductorary address at the conference which was being given by Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture north of the border.
I only wish that I hadn’t to come back. As Pete Hinton rightly recognised in thanking the Cabinet Secretary, we have spoken for years about how ‘politicians would never listen on the issues of culture, heritage, and archaeology’. We were wrong. It is possible, and it is being done.
Fiona Hyslop was engaged, supportive and knowledgeable – reflective of a positive approach to culture being taken in Scotland. So, back in England, what are the prospects that the new Culture Minister Sajid Javid will be able to be the same thing in Westminster?
1) Sajid Javid is not exactly a luvvie:
In his first appearance on Question Time on Thursday night Sajid showed that he was certainly in command of economic issues and that he was probably a valuable junior minister at the Treasury, building on his career as a banker.
His cultural credentials remain yet to be tested. However, better to be a good politician with no specialist knowledge than to be politically inept luvvie. I don’t think this to be the biggest barrier to success in the role. Especially if…
2) Sajid Javid might just be a good politician:
Sajid Javid is an interesting Tory. He is (or was) working class and has worked himself from state comprehensive, through university to a £3 million per year banking job, which he jacked in to enter public service.
Who knows, maybe this suggests that he has the makings of a genuine democrat – albeit a Tory pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind. He’s certainly excelling so far in his career. However, what this means is that…
3) Sajid Javid is a high-flyer:
The trouble is. Javid is without doubt an emerging Tory high-flyer and that brings an important issue.
Like many first time Ministers who land in Culture as high flyers (because it’s a relatively easy backwater within which to shed your training wheels), Javid will, whether he likes it or not be destined for promotions, promotions, promotions* (if you were cynical you might say (…naturally I would never) that as working-class, BME, state educated, antithisis of the Eton toff that provides the ammo for almost all of Ed Milliband’s political arsenal, he is thus a highly prized asset who it will be useful to have in a prominent role). What this means is that he’ll likely be off to another (read: more important) department at the very next reshuffle.
(*Note: Baldness renders him a practically unthinkable candidate for PM, however)
So where does that leave us?
Maria Miller was a ‘good’ culture secretary in the sense that she towed the party line and filled the void drawing as little attention to culture, the arts, and heritage as possible, while considering art for art’s sake a relic of a long gone age of decadence which needed to be toughened up if it wanted to survive in the ‘current climate’.
But maybe, just maybe, Sajid Javid can be ‘good’ in another way. So here’s a challenge to him:
You’ve got 12 months until the general election: Use them.
Javid is unlikely to let up on the rhetoric of the Treasury’s ‘long term economic plan’, but maybe he’ll come into the role with open eyes and ears and aim to build a rapport, learn about the sector and use the skill and financial nouse – not to mention political savvy – to build a grounding for a positive recognition of culture, arts and heritage AND a plan for how we continue to value it in tough economic times.
I think we could then happily wave Mr Javid off after when he heads to the Home office, Health, or Business after the general election.
Finally, to return to Fiona Hyslop’s opening address, one can make a vital point: Any empty shirt with a smile and a hairdo could have charmed an audience like the IfA conference with some placatory words and had a moderate reception (although Maria Miller didn’t even manage this much). The real litmus test is that Hyslop’s department can actually claim to be a genuine advocate for culture. The Scots don’t shirk the economic realities, but they seem to care about culture and heritage.
In England, we’ve missed an advocate capable of pulling the department out of the dirt for far too long. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we’ve found our man. …But wouldn’t that be a thing to hope for?