Politicians Reach For Their Revolvers
“You serve at the pleasure of the Secretary of State who appoints you and disappoints you” quipped Dame Liz Forgan, the outgoing Chair of the Arts Council after she was rather unceremoniously sacked from her role by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. This was before he was politically reincarnated as the Secretary of State for Health. The unforgivable sin she committed was to defend the value and importance of the arts and resist the financial cuts made to arts and culture budgets. Whilst his own trespasses may have been forgiven, he was not prepared to forgive the trespasses of others, especially not for the sake of the arts.
It was Richard Godwin’s excellent piece in today’s Evening Standard titled “You never see our politicians doing culture” that brought the quote to mind and which refers to an incident when Hunt’s replacement, Maria Miller, was asked which cultural events she had been to recently. She was stumped and eventually cobbled together that she had seen “Three Sisters, a Chekhov play at the New Vic”. As Godwin points out, if “the Culture Secretary feels the need to spell out that Three Sisters is a Chekhov play, gets the name of a famous London theatre wrong and needs a special adviser present at all times, it does not say much for this government’s inner life.”
Yet this is nothing new. Almost twenty five years to the day, the BBC screened an episode of Yes, Prime Minister dealing with the same issues. The Prime Minister in the hugely successful series, Jim Hacker, is worried about being attacked by the arts lobby because of the paltry increase in funding his Government is giving to the arts. He invites various actors, critics and directors to Number 10 and suffers the same humiliation as Miller when asked which was the last play he saw at the theatre?
Hacker: “Erm, uh, let me see, er Hamlet.
Critics (malevolently): “Whose?”
Hacker (solemnly): “Shakespeare’s”
Critics: “No, who was playing Hamlet…(mischievously) Henry Irving?”
One could argue this was satirical comedy and ought to be taken in that vein. However, the very fact that a quarter of a century later we have life imitating art with the Culture Secretary demonstrating how little personal interest she takes in the arts herself stands as a representative indictment of the political classes. Lest we forget that Ms Miller’s full title is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The media and sport elements are more democratic. One can always rely on a politician to ingratiate themselves with what they consider to be popular cultural taste. Why run the risk of appearing aloof and out of touch by frequenting the theatre, opera or ballet when you can provide a running Twitter commentary on Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor and flaunt your man/woman-of-the-people credentials to all your followers. As the apocryphal quote attributed to the nineteenth century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin declares “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
The folly of this mindset is that Britain really does have talent and much of it is in the arts and cultural sphere. It ought to be celebrated and championed by politicians. The theatre offers politicians a chance to contemplate, reflect and be inspired away from their daily duties.
This week sees the opening of Stephen Simon’s Port at the National Theatre, a play set in Stockport in 1988 which charts a thirteen-year odyssey for two children, Rachael (11) and Billy (6) largely abandoned and growing up in the deprived suburban shadows of Manchester. It has been described as “a celebration of the human spirit as Racheal looks to the future and opts for something better.” When has a politician failed to remind us that they went into politics to make life better?
However, I doubt if many will attend. The attitude is nicely summarised by the theatre critic who chides the hapless Jim Hacker saying: “When you say you believe in the theatre, it’s like believing in God, you mean you believe that it exists.” For a lot of politicians, one gets the feeling they couldn’t be bothered whether it existed or not.