April 11, 2014

Replacing Maria Miller with Sajid Javid means more of the same for British culture

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How will Javid cope without the corporate blue tinting of his previous career? Photo from Association of British Insurers via Flickr

How will Javid cope without the corporate blue tint of his previous career? Photo from Association of British Insurers via Flickr

Hurrah! Britain’s unbeloved culture secretary, Maria Miller, has left the building. Miller was responsible for an 8% cut in government spending on the arts, and will be remembered for urging arts institutions to be more economically viable… only to be put to shame by those cultural institutions when Arts Council England produced a report showing just how financially savvy its institutions were.

But it finally emerged last week that Miller did not follow her own advice. When it came down to it, Miller herself was not economically viable. She resigned on Wednesday after it was revealed she had over-claimed on her MP expenses.

Let’s not break out the champagne and reopen the local libraries just yet, though. Miller’s replacement, Sajid Javid, gives us fresh cause for concern. Before his new role, Javid was financial secretary to the Treasury and before that? Well at 25 he became the youngest ever vice-president of Chase-Manhattan Bank before working his way to the top of Deutsche Bank. He’ll be well-placed to advise on community theatres and inner-city youth dance, then.

The children’s writer Michael Rosen has been quick to point out the differences between banking and culture, and why he doubts Javid is the best man for the job. In an “Open letter to Sajid Javid, the new Culture Minister”, posted on his blog, Rosen cannot hide his contempt:

…this is a peculiar time, isn’t it? You’re an ex-banker who made millions during the fatal bubble of the early 21st century. You were at a bank that has been fined for rate-fixing. You know all about this kind of money.  The fact that people like you got up to all sorts of greedy lending and fiddling is why we’re in the crisis.

And yet the party you belong to keeps telling us that the reason why we’re in the crisis is because ‘we’ spent too much money on health, education, social services, benefits and – yes – culture. Anything that was paid for out of taxation seems to have caused the crisis, according to your party. Lies, all lies, but that’s the sort of ‘culture’ we have to put with from your party.

These are sharp words, but they come from the front-line of local arts: Rosen has been working with schools and writing workshops for his whole artistic career. He admits it’s not just about the money:

…it’s about an attitude to people…Either we think that everyone is entitled to have access to all kinds of art, no matter how pricey that art was to produce, or not. As yet, we don’t know which side of this divide you sit.

How Javid will navigate arts and culture in his role has yet to be seen, but some have pointed to glimmers of hope hidden in his past. Although he now hangs a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in his office, Javid is the son of an immigrant bus driver and according to the Guardian:

Much of his success is a tribute to his mother who forced her children to sit in the public library until they leaned to read, and to see the merits of self-improvement.

Access, equality and multiculturism form the backbone of arts funding in the UK, and Javid has had personal experience of all three. But his membership of the Conservative Party suggests it might be a background he wants to forget.

Economics is about the organisation of resources. Maybe a former banker will be able to organise the distribution of funding in a better way and in a way that is fairer to all and benefits more people. Maybe he will understand the importance of financial investment as well as the need to take smart risks.

More likely this was a rushed appointment after the previous Cultural Secretary’s swift fall from grace. More likely, this was the hiring of an individual who will continue to frame culture in the financial terms that benefit nobody but the Conservative government.

 

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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