Under Discussion: Louder, please: What should the new Secretary of State for National Heritage do now? Speak up, for one thing, argues David Lister

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The Independent Culture
The appointment of Stephen Dorrell as Secretary of State for National Heritage must make Ken Baird, the former music director at the Arts Council, kick himself for having given in his notice. 'Would you believe it?' he must be muttering to himself. 'That young tyke who made my bed, cleaned my shoes and burnt my toast . . .' Nearly 30 years ago, Dorrell, the man now charged with rescuing the Arts Council, and by extension the Arts, from the current cash crisis, was Baird's fag at Uppingham School.

The psychological effects of such master / servant relationships are not easily overcome. Who knows, one word from Baird and the new minister might have axed an orchestra, and would certainly have told his former colleagues at the Treasury what to do with their paltry autumn arts grant.

Others who can claim no such intimacy have already been weighing in with advice. Lord Gowrie, the former Arts Council chairman (someone whom one cannot readily imagine fagging for anyone), has urged him to restore the cuts in the Arts Council's grant.

My own advice is to listen to one of his predecessors, David Mellor (who, come to think of it, would have made an excellent fag). When he had negotiated with the Treasury for the first time for the Arts grant, Mellor told me how ridiculous it was that he was expected to spend two months pulling out all the stops getting the Arts as much money as possible and sit back for the rest of the year and have no say on how it was spent.

As he prepares for negotiations with the Treasury in the all-important coming public spending round, Dorrell should be prepared to be interventionist. Restoring the Arts Council's losses will be only the first of many hurdles in the vitally important year coming up. The National Lottery money for the Arts - estimated at anything from pounds 170m to pounds 320m - will mean a dramatic change to the landscape. Yet that, too, is governed by an arm's length principle, with the minister having no say in who gets the money.

The argument for elected politicians being forbidden by tradition from making policy on the Arts is becoming harder and harder to sustain, not least when the Arts Council proved itself both incompetent and unaccountable in the fiascos and U-turns on aborted plans to close a dozen regional theatres and cease funding two orchestras last year.

I believe that if Dorrell were to take the lead in formulating national Arts strategy he would meet far less opposition in the Arts than he might fear, particularly if he grapples with concrete problems like the crying need for a National Dance House. Or, for that matter, equally pressing but less tangible inter-departmental problems such as cutbacks in local government Arts spending and the near impossibility of getting much-demanded discretionary grants for drama students.

In the meantime, the new Heritage Secretary has started off on rather an odd note. His private office says he will not 'discuss his past involvement in any of the activities for which he will now be responsible'.

Oh, for goodness sake. If he moved to Transport would he refuse to comment on whether he had ever driven a car? Why do ministers who are appointed to oversee the Arts so often adopt this coyness (with the exception, it must be said, of Mr Mellor and his legendary CD collection)? Do they think that they will be lampooned for not appreciating the aquatic nuances in Damien Hirst's latest installation? Even in the Arts, they are a little more sophisticated and worldly wise than that.

The Arts world wants someone who appreciates the enormous contribution it makes to the country's economy and quality of life, and who shouts that from the rooftops as he negotiates vigorously on its behalf, both for new money, new buildings and a more coherent planning and spending policy.

If the Arts world's priority had been a Secretary of State who had written a West End play, bestselling novels and had a priceless art collection, it would have lobbied day and night for a certain Lord Jeffrey Archer.