It is no secret that Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s puppet master, wants to shake up Whitehall. Bored of the bureaucracy of SW1, Cummings has gone rogue. Likely-unlawful job adverts will soon seem a minor eccentricity after what’s expected to be one of the most sweeping cabinet reshuffles in recent history.
For DCMS – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) – the writing has been on the wall since the election. Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, adamant that she would quit political life, was persuaded to return to her post by a peerage – and the prospect that she wouldn’t have to stay all that long.
For while Morgan postponed her retirement plans, DCMS got started on theirs. Rumours that Cummings’ plans to disband the department spread quickly through its ranks. Various scenarios that are apparently being tabled include siphoning off the D to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and spreading the C across the Cabinet Office, Education and others. As February’s reshuffle-cum-overhaul approaches (though ministers have been at pains to deny it will happen), the whispers have grown to a roar. News on Thursday of Morgan’s decision to stand down before the reshuffle was, to some, the nail in the coffin. One DCMS official told me last week that the department’s demise was now “a question not of if, but of when.”
The last decade has not been kind to culture. Council spending has fallen by almost £400m; the Arts Council has had its funding slashed by a third; creative subjects have gradually disappeared from school timetables; 800 public libraries have closed.
While there have been recent boosts to funding for museums and libraries and culture teaching in schools, the sad truth is that these are sticking plasters over a nationwide crisis in culture funding, one that has negatively affected 74% of arts organisations – including those I’ve worked in.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been ministerial champions of culture in recent years. Ed Vaizey, who served as culture secretary for six years until 2016, was widely regarded as passionate and effective. Yet politicians such as Vaizey are – particularly on the Conservative benches – a dying breed, one Cummings may soon render extinct.
The government will point to 2022’s Festival of Britain as evidence of their support of my sector. Times music critic Richard Morrison is sadly right to point out that £120m in government culture funding doesn’t come along very often. Yet the festival – the sole arts policy in the entire Conservative manifesto – has done little to convince those working in culture of the government’s commitment. On the contrary, the “Brexit” festival demonstrates a profound lack of imagination about what culture is capable of.
Someone so known for his out-of-the-box thinking, Cummings should be well aware that culture is not simply a blunt instrument for cultivating national pride. Rather, culture is woven into the fabric of our lives and societies: the buildings we live and work in were first imagined by architects; the clothes we wear produced by designers; the medical implements we use fashioned by craftspeople. Nor is art only valuable for art’s sake: the creative industries contribute more to the UK economy than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas sectors combined. Culture’s effects are far-reaching, and can achieve so many other policy goals: improving our mental and physical wealth, catalysing social mobility, generating tourism. Yet like the seeming ease of “Get Brexit Done”, Cummings is being seduced by simplicity and a slimmed-down cabinet – and shooting himself in the foot.
Whether Cummings will have his way next month remains to be seen. The Arts Council’s chief exec yesterday remained tight-lipped on the fate of its big sibling on Whitehall. But one thing seems certain: the DCMS will not be what it once was, and in so many ways, our nation will be poorer for it.
Harry Hickmore is a theatre manager and head of development and communications at Wilton’s Music Hall