What did Jeremy Hunt achieve for the arts and culture?

Charlotte Higgins, 10.09.2012
Jeremy Hunt is out of the DCMS and off to health; Maria Miller is the incoming culture secretary. He will not be mourned by the arts world.
As Jeremy Hunt leaves the DCMS today, he will do so with the distinction of being the least mourned secretary of state in the culture department's history – as least as far as the arts world goes. As one senior British cultural figure put it, a line echoed repeatedly on Twitter this afternoon: "Jim Naughtie spoke the thoughts of the entire culture sector when he Freudian-slipped him."

Why has Hunt been so loathed?

To answer that, one needs to go back several years, to 2008.

When he was appointed shadow culture secretary, he set about charming the arts world – charm is a weapon that Hunt wields effortlessly – and did it very well. As the Brown government began to look increasingly moribund, its ministers thinner on ideas as they grappled with their own internal woes, up popped Hunt: keen as mustard, pitching up to lots of events, gamely giving speeches, attending conferences, showing willing.

The message was that the Conservatives were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to become the party of the arts. As he said to me in 2010, the arts are "fundamentally important" to the Tories:

"People have had certain ­assumptions in the past about ­Conservative governments, partly because of some of the things that happened in the 1980s, and partly because of the tone of some of the debate in the 1980s that appeared to say public spending on the arts was something you might want to progressively ­reduce. That isn't where the modern Conservative party stands."

Leaving aside how hollow those remarks might or might not now sound, in rhetorical terms, this was of course quite different from the punitive language employed against the arts by the previous Tory administration. Hunt's enthusiasm was welcomed. At last, people thought, here is a man who will make the case for the arts in the highest reaches of government. In his first speech as shadow culture secretary, Hunt promised to "support, nurture, and encourage" the arts.


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But when it came to the crunch, there seemed to be very little nurture in the air: quite the opposite. While few in the arts would have argued that the culture budget should have been immune from necessary public spending cuts, there was a particular unpleasantness in the manner in which the 30% cuts to the arts were handed down in 2010: presented as a 15% cut to "front line" services – a false division (front line/back office) if ever there was one.

Then there was the sudden, immediate, brutal culling of the UK Film Council and Museums, Libraries, Archives Council: while few would have argued that either were model organisations, the ruthlessness with which they were despatched reeked of ideological fervour rather than considered action.

In short, people began to suspect that Hunt's priority had been to wield the axe with an efficiency that would endear him to his superiors rather than to "support, nurture and encourage the arts". The early rhetoric looked, in retrospect, like a conscious decision to attempt to "decontaminate" brand Tory, rather than borne of any real conviction. The sense of betrayal – the rhetoric set next to the reality – has been enormous.

Hunt's single big idea was to encourage philanthropy. All along, he claimed that so doing would pay off not in a year, or five years, but 100 years. There is something impressive in a minister so boldly attaching himself to a policy that could not pay dividends in the short term. But will it ever make any palpable difference? Hunt declared 2011 "the year of corporate philanthropy".

This gesture seemed to result in precisely nothing. He announced match-funding schemes for organisations keen to build up their endowments, eager to emulate a US philanthropic model.

And yet he has never really recognised, to my mind, the deep problems caused in the US by endowments that, as the global economic crisis has deepened, are yielding less and less or yielding nothing at all; increasingly the US looks to our mixed economy as a model.

Equally, the bungling of the tax breaks for charitable giving in the budget did nothing to inspire confidence in George Osborne's attachment to Hunt's ideas on philanthropy, or indeed the Government's competence. The kindly will say that time will be the judge of Hunt on this policy area: the sceptics will say that the early signs are not propitious.

But still, better the devil you know, some might say. The incoming culture secretary, Maria Miller, has a reputation as a stonewaller, with little feeling for culture. Fervent is the hope that this reputation is unfounded, especially with another spending review perhaps on the way, and possible in-year cuts.

Amelia Gentleman interviewed Miller last year. She tells me that one observation about the then disabilities minister ended up being cut from the published piece. It was this: that over a year into her tenure paintings by disabled people lay on the floor, still unhung. You might hope that that is not symbolic of things to come.

Charlotte Higgins is the chief arts writer for The Guardian. This article first appeared in The Guardian and is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.


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Wynne Parry
Industrial Officer, PCS
17.09.2012, 12:57
Few ministers have set about shrinking their own department to the degree acheived by Jeremy Hunt. The reward for many hard working professionals for delivering so well on The Olympics, Diamond Jubilee and the digital switchover is to receive a redundancy notice. Already a small department DCMS touches the lives of UK citizens in many ways. Culture and the Arts need a strong voice in government - look at the tax breaks mess - in order to remind us not just of the economic capacity but of the huge contribution to place and well being. Workers in DCMS deserve better for their efforts than a thank you and goodnight.
MA Member
12.09.2012, 23:18
There is a strange discrepancy between Conservative voters whom you can spot in large numbers visiting museums, attending cultural events and joining heritage organisations such the National Trust, and Conservative politicians, who like to polish their right-wing credentials by being tough on the arts. Just to confuse matters more it was John Major who set up the National Lottery and ( i think) established what is now the DCMS, the then Department for National Heritage.

I sometimes wonder whether it is not 'the arts' Conservative politicians dislike, but rather the people who lead 'the arts' in Britain, because let's face it, they are definitely, including the museum profession, more at ease with Labour than with the Tories.

Politicians are tribal creatures and once they think you are 'the enemy' then it's going to be tough winning them over to your point of view.

To give another obvious example, the right rant on constantly about the BBC - probably the organisation that does more to unite this country than any other (which you would think patriotic parties of the right would applaud). However, the right feel everyone in the BBC is a knee-jerk liberal or card carrying New Labour supporter, and this colours their view of probably the best broadcaster in the world, even to the point of plotting its demise or selling off bits of it to foreign competitors.

In short, we have our work cut out in convincing any Conservative minister to listen to us and talking the language of the liberal left won't help matters. It's time for some skilful diplomacy until the next general election!

P.S Diplomacy doesn't mean selling out or trampling over your principles.