What do we want from a Culture Secretary?

yes, ministerSajid Javid has been appointed s the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. His backstory is here, and misgivings about the appointment of someone from the world of finance with no obvious affinities for the high arts are in the Guardian here and here. Blog neighbour Paul Levy writes:

The only thing we really know about his interest in the arts is that he has defended ticket touts. We’ll see. I, of course, want a Culture Minister who is an opera queen, a collector of contemporary art, a theatre buff, a reader of fiction and passionate about serious music.

I’m not so sure.

Let’s think about what a member of cabinet does. First, the Secretary of Culture (for short) works with the Department (i.e. the bureaucrats) to develop priorities and initiatives, and then advocates for them at the Cabinet table. In this way the Secretary is a defender not just of the arts writ large, but of the specific things he or she wants to accomplish through the implementation of policy. The Prime Minister wants the members of Cabinet to each advocate for their respective department’s priorities – that is how the PM best gathers information on the state of play, and to form priorities for the government. Does this require that the Secretary of Culture be a passionate consumer of all the high arts? Not necessarily. More important that the Minister be an effective advocate for arts policy. This needs be done with some passion, of course. But it’s not clear the person so deeply involved in all aspects of the arts on a personal level is necessarily the best person for the arts in cabinet. Particularly so because the Culture Secretary, even if someone who lives for the arts, needs to be able to put personal preferences aside in order to make the case for coherent policy. Would the ‘opera queen’ look with disdain upon folk music festivals? Might the ‘collector of contemporary art’ think investments in painting classes for seniors a waste of resources? The Culture Secretary Mr Levy desires might not work out so well, if it is a Secretary of firmly held views on what is valuable and what is not in the arts. Governing is a team sport, not well-suited for someone with deeply held personal preferences.

Second, the Secretary of Culture needs the administrative ability to hold the bureaucracy accountable for the timely and efficient implementation of agreed upon policies. This is not a simple task, as I observed in the few years I spent working as a policy advisor in a (Westminster-style parliamentary) cabinet office in government (admittedly much smaller than the British parliament, but the framework was the same). Government departments require oversight to ensure the bureaucracy is not simply implementing the policies it prefers, and disregarding the rest – this is the running joke, and the source of the ironic title of the BBC’s series Yes, Minister. And again, this job does not require that the Secretary be constantly seen at gallery openings or the theatre.

In my experience, members of cabinet appear at events to see and be seen by the stakeholders of their portfolios, but it is not a part of the job they enjoy much, simply because they are so overwhelmingly busy with the other tasks of being a member of cabinet, having oversight authority of a large bureaucracy, and being an elected, and hopefully re-elected, representative of their district. At the opera, the Culture Secretary’s head is filled with all the various tasks that need attending to, not on how well this tenor sings Lohengrin.

So I suggest giving Mr Javid a chance to show that he can be an effective Culture Secretary in terms of advancing wise cultural policy, and ensuring it is implemented with fairness, economy, and responsiveness. In the end, that’s much more important than how often he is seen at the theatre.

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