Labour arts supremo admits he's a philistine

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The Independent Online
He rarely watches television, certainly not the most talked about programmes of the moment, writes Chris Blackhurst. His favourite book this year was the saccharine best seller, The Horse Whisperer.

Poetry? His father made him read it as a child, he says, to punish him. He hardly ever goes to the theatre to watch pure drama: Riverdance is more his scene. He knows little about this year's Turner Prize competition. British cinema's two recent hits, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave? He has not see them.

But he has supported Newcastle United all his life, and he likes to go fishing.

Question: who is this self-confessed philistine, someone of whom it could never be said that was "arty-farty?" Step forward Jack Cunningham, the nation's arts supremo in the next Labour government.

Heaven help arts bodies when they go to Mr Cunningham asking for handouts. The new National Heritage Secretary could be Gordon Brown's dream. There should be little danger of him defying the new Chancellor's strictures on spending when faced with requests for things in which he has not the slightest interest.

The gaping holes in the shadow Heritage Secretary's artistic knowledge and experience are laid bare today, in an interview with the Independent on Sunday.

The contrast between Mr Cunningham and the Conservative minister for whom the post of Heritage Secretary was invented in 1992, David Mellor, could not be greater. Mr Mellor may support Chelsea and host a football phone-in on "Radio Bloke" but he also knows a fine opera when he sees one, has a huge collection of classical compact discs and can talk impressively for hours about Britain's great artistic heritage.

To be fair to Mr Cunningham, he never, as he makes plain in his interview, wanted the job in the first place. "It was not part of my career development to be in this job," he jokingly admits. Tony Blair asked him to do it, so he did it.

Mr Cunningham's candour is admirable. But it does make you wonder about his political touch. Stephen Dorrell, another Heritage Secretary, also had little interest in the cultural things in life and for a period disappeared from view, before bouncing back to take charge at Health. Unlike Mr Cunningham, though, he did what a lot of politicians do - he never admitted to not knowing anything. Interview, Sunday Review