Although I’m normally a sucker for a good anniversary, one recently passed me by with little notice. On 11 April the Department for Culture, Media and Sport celebrated its 20th birthday, having been created in the days that followed the 1992 election.
The Department of National Heritage, as it was then called, was formed to bring together various separate responsibilities that were held across Whitehall. Sport came from Education, heritage came from Environment, while the old office of Arts and Libraries provided the job of sponsoring national museums and the Arts Council. Together, they formed the ‘Ministry of Fun’ as it soon became known under the brief leadership of its first Secretary of State, David Mellor.
|A Minister for Fun|
Given that the DCMS, as it has been titled since 1997, is this year responsible for some fairly major national events, it is perhaps hardly surprising that it took little interest in marking its own 20th birthday. Only a blog from Toby Sargent on the DCMS’s website served to mark the anniversary. And this is as it should be: the passing of decades is of little interest by itself, after all.
|Culture towers, Cockspur Street.|
More intriguing, however, has been the flurry of speculation in recent days over the future of the Department once this year’s ‘summer of celebration’ is over. According to the shadow culture minister, Harriet Harman, Number 10 is actively plotting for the dissolution of the department at some point soon, presumably with its spoils shared back among various of the big beast departments in Whitehall. Ms Harman has published an open letter to Jeremy Hunt to try to uncover the truth - though I do wish she would take the trouble to spell the department’s name correctly.
(The world is divided into those who call it the department ‘of’ culture, as opposed to the department ‘for’ culture. Or at least my small world is.)
The speculation has prompted others to come out of the woodwork with their own views on the department. The Institute of Economic Affairs claimed on Thursday that scrapping the department would save Government £1.6 billion, enabling a cut in fuel duty of 3p or various other fiscal benefits.
Maurice Davies of the Museums Association fought back on the Today programme the next day, when he pointed out that simply abolishing the department would not itself save that amount of money. There would instead need to be a conscious decision by Government to pull out of any subsidy or support for sport and the arts - which legally it cannot do overnight. Admission charges on the doors of the national museums would never recoup the vast amounts of money that is required to maintain collections in this way, so the price of a few pence off the price of petrol would be a fullscale retreat by Government from culture as a legitimate area for intervention.
Graham Hitchen, an arts and design consultant who knows the department well, has offered a more measured piece, speculating on a possible scenario in which the department is split up in a post-Olympic games reshuffle into two principal blocks. Arts and sport would join the Education department, while the creative industries and tourism would join the Business department, newly led by a newly promoted Jeremy Hunt.
Such speculation is an entertaining enough parlour game for those who like that sort of thing (and I should declare my own interest at this point: I was a DCMS employee for around a half of its lifetime, from 1998 to 2008). There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer of course, and only the politics of the coming months and years will determine the fate of the department. I offer here my own observations on the issue:
- DCMS’s demise has been predicted at just about every election for the last 10 years or more. Each time it has grown in size instead, absorbing other responsibilities. Past performance is therefore no indicator that DCMS is about to face its demise.
- The other great innovation alongside the creation of the department was the invention of the National Lottery, to provide funding for the ‘good causes’ of arts, sport, heritage, charities and the Millennium. The Lottery has had a seismic impact on the world of culture since 1994. To split up the department would presumably also mean splitting responsibility for the Lottery – not a great move.
- Most other EU and European countries have a separate culture ministry of some sort. Splitting up the department would mean a loss of European and international influence.
- Few people have addressed what would happen to heritage if DCMS was split up among other departments. Would it return to the modern-day successor to the old DoE, the department for Communities and Local Government? Or has the impact of nearly 20 years of HLF funding now changed the view of heritage so much that it is no longer regarded simply as a planning issue? In which case, if the Hitchen scenario plays out, does it get shunted in with tourism, or is it placed alongside arts and museums in a reconstituted education department? Neither quite works.
Arguably, the best place for heritage is in its own department sitting alongside museums, the arts, tourism and the creative industries. A bit like DCMS, in fact – although recent anti-heritage moves by Government (eg the new VAT on alterations to listed buildings) suggest that the case for heritage is not being quite made as loudly as it could be. It will be fascinating to hear what the Heritage and Tourism Minister as to say on this, and on the future of DCMS more generally, when he gives a keynote speech on heritage and the economy in a few weeks’ time.