Farewell Maria, what was it you did again?

Being culture secretary is a strange role, not least because no politician can say what culture is

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As generally happens in these cases, the real interest of l'affaire Miller had nothing to do with its principal ornament's culpability in the expenses scandal: in fact, it lay so far beneath the surface that it might as well have not existed. Maria Miller came, she briefly apologised, she tenaciously hung on, she reluctantly capitulated, she tearfully departed, she was briskly replaced, and all the while the question of what she did, and what culture secretaries as a breed are supposed to do, was not so much as hinted at, either by the Prime Minister who had appointed her or the Leveson-loathing press that had seen her off. The great offices of state – chancellorships, home secretaryships and so on – have their traditional remits, but the role of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to give that curious governmental redoubt its full title, has always been a kind of writhing Sargasso sea of assumption, inference and implication – largely because any politician asked to come up with a definition of "culture" would start to look very uncomfortable indeed.

If culture secretaries never quite seem to know where exactly their duties lie (should they be commenting on the Man Booker shortlist? Turning up at the Buxton Festival? Lobbying for Morrissey's knighthood?) then their difficulties are always compounded by the blatant juvenility of the job. It seems only yesterday that the view from their departmental window was filed under "National Heritage", and not so very long ago since "the Arts" were the responsibility of a junior minister so low in the Westminster pecking order that he or she could be a member of the House of Lords without anyone seriously exercising themselves.

The general quality, it can fairly be said, has not been high. Of all the stories of governmental arts chiefs betraying their lack of nous, my favourite is of the one who sat next to Margaret Drabble at a dinner at the Savoy and, having been informed that Arnold Bennett had enjoyed the cuisine so much that he had an omelette named after him, inquired, "And is Arnold Bennett dining here tonight?"

On the other hand, there have been some very good arts ministers: David Mellor, for example, to name another politician bounced out of office by the newspapers in revenge for his stance on press regulation; or Lord Gowrie who, as a practising poet, must have been the first politician for over a half a century with an opinion worth hearing when the question of the Laureateship came up. In fact, Margaret Thatcher, however much derided by the literati for her alleged philistinism, can seem a kind of cultural colossus when compared with some of the people who succeeded her. How many other politicians of her generation, for example, could greet a well-known poet – in this case, Philip Larkin – by quoting some of his verse back at him? And yet neither Mrs T, nor that great Britpop impresario Tony Blair, seems ever to have considered what they wanted from a post that is arguably quite as important to the nation's well-being as health, education or pension provision.

It is the same with David Cameron, who, in the week before Ms Miller fell dramatically on to her sword, could be found protesting that she had been "a very good culture secretary". And what had Ms Miller actually done, apart from delivering that widely quoted speech in which she stressed the value of the arts to the national economy? And what in her background – a high-octane curriculum vitae including two stints at Grey Advertising and a marketing manager's job at Texaco – had encouraged the appointment in the first place? No, Ms Miller, you suspect, had got the job because Mr Cameron wanted her in the Cabinet and this was the post that happened to be free, a kind of default setting for the ambitious young junior minister. Or, to put it another way, how many politicians consciously train themselves up, as Nigel Lawson did for the chancellorship and Denis Healey did for the foreign secretaryship he never ultimately acquired, for the Department for Culture Media and Sport?

 

A little historical comparison is instructive, but not, in the end, conclusive. Most arts world professionals would probably argue that the modern politician is deeply philistine and that the reason for this lack of cultural firepower lies in the general collapse of intellectual standards that has affected the House of Commons since the end of the 19th century. Certainly a glance at the Victorian political elite reveals a dazzling array of cultural titans: Gladstone, with his Homeric studies and his passion for Dante; Lord Derby, who spent his leisure translating the Iliad into blank verse; Lord Salisbury, who wrote for the Saturday Review. John Morley, a literary man turned Liberal MP who ended his career as secretary of state for India, was quoted in the 1890s to the effect that "in the present government, including the Prime Minister, there are three men at least capable of earning their bread as men of letters".

Impressive, and injurious, as this may be – the modern equivalent would be Boris Johnson writing his articles for The Daily Telegraph – it does not mean that Lord Derby would have made a good secretary of state for culture. Neither, to move forward into the last century, would Harold Macmillan, despite bequeathing to posterity a diary stuffed with nightly readings of Dickens, Trollope and Sir Walter Scott. For both men believed, as did most Victorians, that "culture" was something an educated person did in his, or her, spare time and quite beyond the jurisdiction of the state. These attitudes endure, and one of the reasons for the present government's indifference to the arts is that age-old Tory suspicion of Leviathan, and a reluctance to squander money on what may, if not watched closely, turn out to be radical experiment.

As to where this leaves Sajid Javid, the incoming culture secretary and a politician, like Ms Miller, possessed of a curriculum vitae that gives no indication at all of his suitability for the job, he can perhaps reflect that, in the absence of very much guidance, he can do pretty much as he likes. And so my advice to him, as he contemplates the few months that lie ahead before either the Government loses office or he moves on to higher things, is to make himself conspicuous, even to the point of becoming a nuisance.

He should, for example, make a point of going to the Man Booker dinner and, if he doesn't like the Ian McEwan novel – if, that is, he has heard of the Ian McEwan novel – say so. He should complain about the rubbish they're showing on BBC3 – if, in fact, they are showing rubbish on BBC3 – while also remembering that culture has a definition beyond the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Society of Literature and Don Giovanni. He may well feel – as both the Prime Minister and the great majority of the public seem to feel – that it is not much of a job, but it is his particular duty to prove us all wrong.

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