A heritage trail littered with mistakes

Caught in a culture clash between quangos and populist politics, the Ministry of Fun has gone beyond a joke
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The Independent Online
We weren't alert enough. Perhaps it could have been stopped way back, during the hurly-burly of the 1992 election campaign. But like so many unexamined things in the Conservative manifesto, it slipped through. I refer to the Department of National Heritage, doler-out of television licences, custodian of museums, employment agency for the great and good. What a dreadful idea that has proved to be.

The name ought to have been warning enough. People who make a government department for "National Heritage" are clearly the spaced-out mind-slaves of corporate euphemism. It is a McName, a crunchy, bite-sized little chunk of nothingness that makes the heart sink and the soul gibber. Such people, capable of anything, will end up calling the Employment Secretary the "Minister for Human Resources" and Dartmoor Prison a "correctional facility".

They are packagers, people who try to disguise unpleasantness and convey a spurious forward march merely by branding - as when John Major said in his Dimbleby interview that he had recently doubled the number of British universities - a curiously unremarked-upon remark.

The National Heritage department has a ragbag of responsibilities that could be perfectly well carried out elsewhere. There is the media ownership part of the job, which is essentially about market regulation and should be done by the Trade and Industry people: what has "heritage" to do with the demeaning auction for the franchise to run Channel Five, a pap-conduit for which there has been no public demand? Tourism, similarly, despite its heavy reliance on littered and dismal "heritage trails", is an industry, not an art.

That leaves the department's oversight of numerous arty and sporty quangos, including the National Lottery-related Heritage Fund, responsible for enriching Winston Churchill the younger, and the Millennium Fund.

Let us begin by noting that culture and government do not go well together. No ministry in the history of the world has helped to produce a line of workmanlike poetry. No great artist has prospered thanks to cultural bureaucrats: France's enthusiastic state support for the arts has coincided with the most arid period in that great nation's cultural history.

There is, however, a role for public subsidy of very expensive and treasured objects and events which would otherwise decay - stately buildings, a national opera, orchestras. They are things that have always required patronage. In the absence of great patrons, the state steps in, rightly, to preserve these aspects of our common culture. To oversee this, there is now and always has been a case for a minister of culture.

Other countries have ministers of culture, but our government, under the influence of the packagers and sound-bite merchants, decided in 1992 that it wanted something a bit more populist than culture. It wanted something a bit more Daily Express. It wanted larfs and high jinks. It wanted a human face.

The trouble was, it got David Mellor's. And not only his face. Right from the start, the department suffered from this unhappy marriage of the sublime and the ridiculous. It was to be "Heritage", and thus patriotic and nostalgic, but also to be the demotic, cheeky-chappie "Ministry of Fun".

This patronising confusion of roles quickly caused difficulties. Mellor, aspiring to be the national symbol of fun, became merely a figure of fun. Peter Brooke ran into trouble a year ago over the proposals for a D-Day party in Hyde Park which so offended veterans with its witless jollity that it had to be hurriedly abandoned.

Then there was Iain Sproat, the junior "Heritage" minister, hinting that free public libraries should be scrapped, because reading books was not "sufficiently distinctive" to be subsidised (cheese-paring philistinism also being part of our national heritage). Then there were all those rows about whether various urine-stained concrete towers should be listed and loved, or blown up and danced on - as clear a contest between lite culture and the instincts of populist politics as you could get. Then the Churchill papers row. Next, perhaps, the millennium row.

In most cases, there has been an uneasy relationship between the Secretary of State, standing athwart his tiny empire of 250 souls, and the formidable array of 46 quangos which, in practice, spend most of the money and take most of the decisions. It doesn't take a genius to spot that tension is built into this. The quangos are typically composed of highbrow types working in the interests of whatever art, craft or industry they help fund, while the minister is obliged to represent the interests and earthier values of what Tory MPs fancy to be the popular will.

So now we have the third National Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell.Dorrell has long been regarded as a good thing by the chattering classes. Well, so he is: he is on the left of the Tory party, and is self-deprecating, and both are agreeable traits in a Cabinet minister. If, one day, he confronts Michael Portillo for the party leadership, Hampstead and Islington will be voting solidly for him.

Dorrell is not, however, particularly keen on either of the two functions of his department - the promotion of "culture" and naked populism. On culture, he quickly made it clear that he was uninterested in films, books, theatres, music, rare books, paintings and museums. True, his family business has given him a close knowledge of industrial clothing, but even in Britain, this doesn't quite count.

Nor has Dorrell been a populist. Had Lord Archer, say, been put into the job, he would have been on camera at the snooker finals and glimpsed at every big sporting event. He would have ensured that the lottery money for the arts was divvied up into half-million-pound cheques, then disbursed to ailing playhouses in every marginal constituency he could find. He would have been photographed handing over the cheques. Not Dorrell - too fastidious.

It takes some doing for the government of a nation of gamblers to set up a national gambling scheme, give away some of the proceeds - and still make everyone angry. That, though, was what the apolitical experts of the Heritage Memorial Fund achieved by handing over £13m for Sir Winston Churchill's papers to a trust whose main beneficiary was his grandson. And that was what Dorrell failed to stop.

What is the point of a Ministry of Fun that infuriates so many people so often? Why involve a cabinet politician at all in the oversight of cultural policy, when there is so clearly no coherent policy, and when the key decisions are taken by committees of unelected experts? Why not instead require these quangos, including the Arts Council and the Sports Council, to report directly to Parliament, which votes them their money?

The department, with its silly name, its mysterious committees doling out gamblers' and taxpayers' money, and its blind auctions of television franchises, has come to resemble a dodgy television game show rather than a proper part of Whitehall. It was set up to raise the reputation of government: three years on, the Government's reputation would be higher without it.