Thursday, 28 June 2007

Business as Usual?

Another politicky one today, folks. But hey, it's a politicky time, what with a whole new Prime Minister and everything. It's the first change of Prime Minister of my adult life, so if I can't commemorate it with a brace of blog posts, what can I commemorate?

So, Gordon's new cabinet. Surprising? Not really. Most of it was leaked wholesale to the papers over the last couple of days - either that or they're just very good guessers. Milliband as Foreign Secretary might be quite surprising if it hadn't been in the news yesterday. Straw as Justice Secretary was a conclusion likewise foregone, although his bonus post of the Lord Chancellorship is quite surprising, given that he's not a Lord. So with one exception, the surprises mostly take the form of people in the smaller jobs who arrive at unexpectedness by being hitherto unheard of.

The one exception, of course, is Jacqui Smith at the Home Office. Creating the first ever female home secretary neatly gets Brown off the charge of having an excessively male cabinet, especially as he's got rid of four senior women in the reshuffle. It could be observed that one of these senior women, who tried to hold onto her job with her gritted teeth, happened to be the first ever female foreign secretary, but there's no point in trolling so early in a premiership I announced myself optimistic about only yesterday.

So, good old Jacqui Smith, who at 44, is also pretty young for such a senior job. Brown has a history of surrounding himself with Bright Young Things, so it's hardly surprising to see the so-called Primrose Hill set liberally adorning the cabinet table, but I'm a bit sick of not being surprised so I'm going to be surprised. Wow! A really high-profile woman in government! Take that in the teeth, equality-doubters!

Although the cabinet is, with the sole exception of Baroness Scotland as AG, entirely white.

And one has to feel sorry for any new home secretary. However popular they are to start with - and Smith certainly has her lovers on the Labour benches, despite having been Chief Whip - the job inevitably turns them into ravening bigots of the hang 'em and flog 'em sort, usually within a couple of weeks. One must be seen to be tough on crime, and if one is seen to be tough on the causes of crime instead - well, that's just another way of saying "soft". Perhaps this is part of the reasoning behind splitting the Home Office up - Smith might in fact turn out to be the first popular Home Secretary in history. Meanwhile at Justice, Jack Straw gets to be desperately unpopular all over again. Talk about a poisoned chalice.

Speaking of which, what do we think to Alistair Darling as the new Chancellor? He's reckoned by the Guardian to be Brown's "safe pair of hands", but anyone outside of the Westminster village is going to find it hard to judge on that from his wonkish performance at DWP. And I suppose a wonk is exactly what Gordon wants at the Exchequer, so he can drive policy on what is effectively home turf while letting Darling do the detail. Let's not forget that for the last 24 hours Brown very briefly emulated Gladstone by being Chancellor and PM at the same time. I bet he's never been happier. Although I don't suppose he'll follow Gladstone in hoping to abolish the income tax (introduced by Pitt the Younger as "a temporary measure" to help fund the war against France, fact fans).

And peaceniks might be pleased to note the presence of David Milliband at the Foreign Office: he's known to have opposed the war "in private", which means in cabinet. Coupled with the return of John Denham, who resigned over the war, might we see a shift in policy, Iraq-wise?

But it is inevitable on this blog that we finally get to and chew over the real surprise: James Purnell at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A surprise because I for one have never heard of him. But fear not! Your intrepid reporter has scoured the internet for goodies! Read on, and all will be revealed...

It's a pleasant surprise to note for a start that he lists his interests as "film, music, theatre and football" - and at the time of writing he hasn't even updated the page to include his new job, so at least we know it's not a sudden and recent addition in the light of his new job, like the new Milkybar Kid hastily taking his support of the Nestle boycott off his blog. With the exception of theatre, it might be noted that those are everyone's interests, but then we don't yet know what sort of music he likes; it might be the Arctic Monkeys, it might be Schonberg. Most politicians say jazz, don't they? Let's assume he likes jazz until we learn the sorry truth.

Still, most people don't say theatre, so let's further assume for the time being that he actually does like it. He was, for a time, on the board of the Young Vic, so he probably does. And it'll be nice to have someone at DCMS who actually likes the arts, and his earlier track record, including a stint as Blair's special advisor on Culture, Media, Sport and the Knowledge Economy, suggests that he might not only like them but even actually know something about them. He might even survive the inevitable moment when a radio station throws him unprepared into one of those embarrassing quizzes, asking him who plays up front for Spurs and how much a ticket costs at the Royal Court. He'll get special kudos if he knows about the 10p standing tickets, even more so if he's a regular purchaser thereof.

An aficionado holding the brief hasn't happened since Chris Smith and he's now widely considered to have been A Good Thing, so there may be reasons to be cheerful. And hilariously, Tessa Jowell remains in cabinet as minister for the Olympics, so she'll get all the flak for that and Purnell can get on with doing a proper job. It'd be like having kept Mandelson on, but solely as Minister for the Dome. A hoot. Poor old Tessa.

But hold your horses. His voting record is much less encouraging: pro ID cards, foundation hospitals and bombing Baghdad, against investigating the circumstances leading to war and determinedly agnostic on the transparency of parliament. He's emphatically a partyliner, perhaps due to conviction, perhaps due to his admiration for Chief Whip Jacqui Smith, who's persuaded people to vote for some pretty preposterous things in her time. James Purnell has been one of the persuaded.

But (he says charitably and with gritted optimism) a voting record tells us very little about how a person would adminster a department like this one, and Purnell's administrative record is marginally more encouraging. He brought in the legislation on the relaxation of the licensing laws which, after an appalling hoohah in the conservative press, I think we can all agree hasn't led to the end of civilisation as we know it. If anything what it shows us is that the licensing laws should be relaxed further - and I say this while firmly ensconsed atop the wagon. He is considered, I learn, to have stewarded this legislation, and others, very effectively. But that still doesn't tell us if he's going to get a better deal for the arts, which is, after all, why we're all here.

So perhaps we should listen to what he has to say: try this speech to the IPPR (for whom he used to work) given in 2005. It's a very predictable speech giving the arts the usual instrumentalist support and using some very distasteful examples of British creativity: Coldplay? Reality TV? Euch. But as ever with these things, it's difficult to tell whether he does this in order to get the speech maximum coverage or because he's an idiot. I'd rather it wasn't necessary to look like a philistine idiot in order to get arts funding better priority, but if it works I'm happy so long as I don't have to strike the same pose myself.

There's a great deal of distaste in the arts world for the instrumentalist argument for subsidy - ie, the argument that we stimulate the economy above and beyond any subsidy we receive and so indirectly, we punch our weight or above. And it's right that we should resist this argument to some extent, because that risks the implication that art's purpose is to stimulate the economy, and by extension the implication that art that does not do so should not be supported. Art's purpose is to be good art; the economy is irrelevant. But with that caveat, why not use this argument? As Alan Bennett said in rather a different context, to a man crossing the desert, the question "Perrier or Evian?" is moot. So long as I don't accept funding granted on the condition it stimulates the economy, I don't mind accepting funding won because someone thinks it might. It might. It probably won't, but it might.

But pleasingly, Purnell acknowledges in the speech, once you've got past the really guffy bits, that "not every bit of the value created by Nick Hytner, JK Rowling or Gilles Peterson is captured by the economic transactions that relate to their work. I believe in art for art’s sake, and creativity would still be central to our lives and the role of Government if it didn’t generate any revenue." That's good to know. How are you going to support it?

Well, he hammers on at some length about competition, but he's talking about broadcast and telecommunications by this point (his definition of "creativity" is large), not the arts as supported by the Arts Council. He's got nothing to say about those, and really, it's a rather depressing speech. It's wonkish in a way that might be useful for the chancellor but I'm not sure is so much so for the DCMS. He seems to have unlimited faith in agencies, councils and bureaux. It's New Labour to the core. And it hasn't got a spark of passion or belief anywhere in it, unless you were to count the desperately weak Shaun of the Dead joke.

The stocktake, then: likes theatre, or claims to, but exhibits no discernible love for it apart from serving on a board. Likes music, but it's Alan McGee who makes him tongue-tied, not Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Likes films because every pound invested brought three pounds at the box office. Has Brown only given him the job because [edited on grounds of good sense]?

So it looks like it's going to be business as usual. And this is the only logical conclusion one can reach when one considers that really, no arts minister fails to make an argument for greater arts subsidy. All they fail at is convincing those who need to be convinced: the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. It seems unlikely that Brown will suddenly change his mind now he's moved one door down. We're all just as fucked as before.

But then. Purnell's journalism is regular and fairly appealing. What little I can find on his radio appearances seems very positive about his sharpness and appeal. And given the echoing appearance of the odd phrase "core script", to indicate where the arts aren't quite and should be, in both this IPPR speech and Blair's recent and far superior (if utterly disingenuous) speech to arty types earlier this year, perhaps we can detect the guiding philosophy of one James Purnell, Supporter of the Arts. Perhaps he really does want to see the arts as part of the core script. Perhaps he really does believe in art for art's sake. Perhaps the poverty-stricken language and thinking of the IPPR speech can be diagnosed as wonkishness solely for delivery to an audience of wonks. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps. At least until he's done something.

Brown is well known for being utterly intransigent - until at length persuaded, when he becomes utterly intransigent on the flipside. And once he's stuck on something he'll go at it all guns, be it PFI or (perhaps) proper subsidy for the arts. Blair, on the other hand is easily persuaded into saying anything that will please his current audience. If Purnell means it when he says he values the arts, rather than just being a well-informed apparatchik, he might be able to persuade Brown to act on it where he could only persuade Blair to say it. Perhaps.

Let's be optimistic.

UPDATE from a proper journalist


Andrew Haydon said...

Thorough. V.G.


Where did you find the bit about the Young Vic?

I'd be prepared to swear that "he lists his interests" is new since I read that website.
I wish I'd screen-capped the page, now.

Nick Hytner also spells his name with a K - or at least everyone who writes about him seems to

He's gay? Where on earth do you find these things out?
Still, Chris Smith was gay. Tessa Jowell wasn't.

danbye said...

The interests were there from moments after I wrote on your wall on facebook, and they're referred to in several other places too. They're just about the only multi-sourced assertion in my whole post, in fact.

Hytner point noted and corrected: wonder where I got that idea from?

The Young Vic thing is referred to in the speech discussed at length, as I recall. It's in the middle of something too lengthy to link to easily, at least, and I'm pretty sure that's it.

The gay thing is entirely unsupported. Honest.

I've also added a paragraph about the cabinet in general since you commented, right up near the top of the piece, about Milliband and Denham.

andrew haydon said...

From the Torygraph: "Mr Purnell, who is engaged to be married..."

Elsewhere, it says that he has previously said that he thinks the Olympics are a mistake. Result!

alexf said...

is the cache of his biography where he was, indeed, listing those as his interests in May.

Jeez, does nobody trust politicians these days?

danbye said...

Andrew - as I said, entirely unsupported.

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