Maria Miller: thank you and goodbye?

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Peter Bazalgette, the Arts Council chairman, has duly given Maria Miller credit for the settlement she has made with the Treasury for the cut the Department for Culture Media and Sport will get in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

She “has done an effective job in making the case for the value of public funding” he says in response to the news that the arts are to get a ring-fenced 5% cut when ACE had been told to model for 10% and 15% scenarios for 2015/16.

But it is rather damning with faint praise. Bazalgette goes on to say: “It is hugely encouraging that the Chancellor and the Treasury have listened to the argument that the arts and culture makes such a valuable contribution to our quality of life and the economy”.

The argument made by the arts and culture, note, not the secretary of state.

DCMS as a whole has got a less generous cut of 8%, and the deal for the arts appears to have been negotiated separately by the likes of Bazalgette and national museum directors like Nicholas Serota who, three weeks ago, went to George Osborne directly with economic arguments for a more lenient treatment of the sector. It was at this point that Osborne and the Treasury finally “got it” and realised how damaging a bigger arts cut would be to the economy for negligible saving.

It means that Mrs Miller cannot simply pass on to the arts the 8% cut as she and her predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, have done in the past because there is no fat in the DCMS, having been cut to the bone already, to absorb a new reduction itself. As it is, she will have to find the saving from elsewhere in her budget.

Nevertheless, she has hung out and got a better settlement than most other government departments who are suffering at least 10% reductions as the government tries to find more savings, but it seems the knives are out not for culture or the arts but for Miller herself.

Arts leaders from Nicholas Hytner to Ruth Mackenzie, director of the successful London 2012 Festival last year, have been briefing the press separately about the need for enhanced sensitivity in dealing with the arts subsidy changes, and now it seems that the arts community has bypassed Miller altogether to make the argument to the Chancellor.

The knives appear to be out for her in government for not dealing decisively with Leveson, not resolving regional broadband and not taking a positive lead on gay marriage. The culture secretary has also been the subject of unprecedented vilification in the Tory press, with the Daily Mail’s drama critic Quentin Letts declaring a couple of weeks ago that “Culture is the department where a country can assert its character. If only its Secretary of State had one”. In May, she made her first speech on the arts, calling for the economic argument to be made, Letts conceded, but “Where was the question of morality in Mrs Miller’s approach to the arts? Where was the vision that
the arts can civilise us? Where was an idea of the arts as the most meritocratic of gifts, a route which can offer talented and aspiring youngsters a route to self-fulfillment…? There is not even much impression she is an arts lover. It was a speech that could have been given by any one of her departmental officials”. Sadly, at that moment her chief departmental official, he long-serving permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens, was tendering his resignation.

Her desperate attempts to grab a positive headline culminated last week in a damp squib of an announcement about the First World War centenary commemoration, in which nothing new was announced (except that 600-odd streets in England were to be renamed after VC winners from the Great War), and the major news about the cultural element cannot be revealed before August. On Friday, The Times’s normally gentle columnist Richard Morrison wrote that “Some (culture secretaries) have been bores; some bluffers. Some, such as Chris Smith and David Mellor, have actually been arty. But not one has depressed me as Maria Miller does. Compared with the vapid nonentity who is now culture secretary, Virginia Bottomley (who had the job between 1995 and 1997) was an artistic titan”.

DCMS is now a huge portfolio with by far the smallest spend of any government department. It might be significant that since its downsizing last year the ministry has moved into the rooms it once occupied when it was a section of the education department, called merely the Office of Arts and Libraries. But while its demise has recently been forecast, it seems more likely now that its head will roll and a new one affixed before the summer recess.

As for the arts, the triumph is substantial and this might be a seachange in the way governments see the sector. The Arts Council, as fuel for the Bonfire of the Quangos, has taken an enormous battering since 2010 and the sector has correctly acknowledged that there is no case for “special treatment” while cuts amounting to 33% have been meted out, and of 50% to ACE itself. But now culture has established the principle that it is a special case after all, and with sense and imagination much of the effect of the new 5% cut might be ameliorated through the National Lottery.

The question now is whether that principle will be accepted by the other great subsidisers of the arts, the local authorities in whose hands the futures of dozens of theatres lie and whose extreme economic pain is even greater than Osborne’s.