Memo to politicians: you need to get out a bit more

Call me Old Labour, but I think ministers should read books and go to the theatre
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The Independent Online

I know very little about writing columns. I am an amateur. My lack of knowledge about journalism is one of the scary things about this job.

That wouldn't be a very impressive statement, even if there's a sub-editor or two who might think it a very accurate one. But Estelle Morris, the new minister for the Arts, can say the same about her portfolio, and it is thought to be rather disarming. I have been pondering on the words Ms Morris's used when she was made Arts minister in the recent government reshuffle.

Ms Morris said: "I am an amateur... My lack of knowledge about the arts is one of the scary things about this job."

The new Arts minister is, as is well known, a singularly honest politician. In 2001, when she was Secretary of State for Education, she admitted that she hadn't "read an entire book for three years".

In my mind, I envisage her being promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In her first Whitehall photocall she disarmingly tells reporters: "I am an amateur when it comes to money matters, really don't know much about them. And I haven't looked at the FTSE index for three years. My lack of knowledge about the economy is one of the scary things about this job"

Wouldn't really wash, would it? I suspect Tony Blair's office would put out a statement within minutes to reassure the City of London that the new minister of course had considerable expertise and was simply being ironic. He, the Prime Minister, would never dream of putting someone into the Treasury who had no knowledge of financial or economic matters.

But when it comes to culture, they do things differently. A new minister can claim ignorance, and no one will bat an eyelid.

Now, I know that it can be even more dangerous for a minister to pretend to have knowledge of cultural affairs just to impress people. I was present at the Cannes Film Festival a few years back when Stephen Dorrell, the then Conservative Arts minister, nearly started a war by declaring publicly and unforgettably that Jeanne Moreau was "a great Frenchman".

Ms Morris has already said she does not intend to be caught out by answering questions about her favourite films and plays (and then spoilt it by saying the best film she had seen recently was All About Schmidt, which isn't quite the correct title of Jack Nicholson's recent work).

I am not attacking Ms Morris personally. She is a very warm person and an unusually honest politician. Nor am I asking that she should claim familiarity with all the latest films, plays, operas, ballets and art exhibitions. Few people with either a job or a family can do that with any honesty. And who cares if she gets the title of a film slightly wrong? What I do worry about is that it can be accepted so readily that a government minister need not be interested in the arts and can go years without reading a book.

Call me Old Labour, but I think that government ministers should read books. Actually, I also think that they should go to the theatre, where, with luck, some of the key political, emotional and philosophical issues of the day, and of former days, are explored and debated on a nightly basis. And while I might not go quite as far as the novelist Jeanette Winterson, who has argued that opera is akin to sex, I think that an occasional night at the opera does no harm either.

Our ministers need what Denis Healey called a "hinterland". They need to extend their sensibilities as much as they need to extend the income tax bracket. They need to understand how people work internally, how they interact, how feelings, emotions and relationships can be explored within a context of music, writing and choreography of technical bravura. Surely that's as interesting and enlightening as an evening closeted with a ministerial red box.

Also, as an aside, I am a little bewildered that Ms Morris did not find it necessary to engage more fully with the arts as first a schools minister and later the Secretary of State for Education. Her then ministry and her present ministry have both been trumpeting for years the benefits of close links between education and the arts, and not only in schools but in terms of ministerial policy-making.

I'm glad that Estelle Morris will now have official sanction to enjoy the best that theatre, music, literature and art have to offer in Britain. My hunch is that she will end up wishing she had made more time and effort to enjoy it all before. And I still look forward to the day when government ministers will feel as awkward saying they know little about the arts as they would saying they know little about health, education or football.

¿ Among the rash of summer parties, there was a refreshingly novel event this week, thrown by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The company entertained its guests with a catwalk show featuring actors and actresses from the company modelling a selection of fine Elizabethan costumes.

I watched the starry wannabe supermodels with an equally starry audience - Sam West and Jane Lapotaire were among the cheerleaders. But I was particularly intrigued by a glimpse of the film star Olivia Williams in the room.

Is Michael Boyd, the new Royal Shakespeare Company. director, considering including some movie stars in his casting? Miss Williams, who had a brief spell with the company before turning to films, had left before I could ask her; and when I put it to an RSC official, I received just an enigmatic smile, which I think I will take as a yes.

¿ Dedications by the author can sometimes be the most revelatory part of a book. I'm reading Carry That Weight: A Secret History of the Beatles, the new biography from Geoffrey Giuliano. Among his dedications at the front of the book is one to "the Moody Blues for their awe-inspiring music". Somehow, writing a book about the Beatles and dedicating it to the music of the Moody Blues seems akin to writing a biography of Keats and dedicating it to William McGonagall.