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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Problem with Chris Smith, Former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

By Norman Lebrecht / June 14, 2001

NEVER finish the job ahead of schedule, an avuncular shop steward once warned me, or they'll replace you with a pretty face. Chris Smith failed to heed Old Labour wisdom, and paid the price.

The former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport went into the election with an empty desk. More than any other minister, he had brought his sectors to heel in a single term. Culture he tranquillised and politicised; Media he won over with a zeal for digital television; and Sport he had in the bag until a forgivable Wembley Stadium slip-up ruined his clean sheet.

If there is one belief that unites Blairites and Brownies, it is the Bill Shankly dictum that football is not a matter of life and death - it's more important than that. The trigger for Smith's dismissal was a run of miskicks by soccer chiefs, who tapped the Lottery for £120 million for a chimerical new stadium and kept coming back for more. Smith played by the rules, only to be undermined by Number 10. Despite his own small army of political and press advisers, he wound up more spinned against than spinning.

His sins were quickly tallied. Smith had refused to shoulder blame for Blair's Dome folly. Brown loathed him with a passion. He had no friends where it counted. But the main reason that Smith had to go was that he had done his job too fast, and too well. So much so that the rumour mills went into overgrind, predicting that his department was to be abolished.

Not quite yet, it seems, but the ground has been prepared. Most media decisions - such as whether Carlton and Granada, headed by Arts Council chairman Gerry Robinson, get to take over ITN - are already made at Number 10. Sport (the all-important soccer apart) might be merged with Health, and Culture, once the Cool Britannia tag wore off, has been of marginal concern. Two landslides have demonstrated beyond doubt that the nation does not vote for its arts.

In a bid to fend off abolition, Smith's successor, Tessa Jowell, will drop the active and creative components of her post and recast it as a Department of Free Time. Like most dirigiste ideas, this is stolen from the French, who are so regulated that they flock en masse to sea and sun on the last weekend in July and flock back on the first in September. John Bull used to have a sturdy mind of his own, but I fear it is about to be harmonised on the leisure front.

Having regulated our lives at work and reduced our education to a set of modules, nanny state will now take over our last precious hours between toil and sleep, and tell us in no uncertain terms how we are supposed to enjoy ourselves - as we pay and pay and pay yet more, for the privilege of being told.

Jowell has declared that her priority will be to organise street parties for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2003, similar to the rather ragged festivities that took place for Her Majesty's 25th anniversary.

The quantum difference appears to have escaped our bright-eyed Secretary of State. In 1977, amid constant economic crisis, Blitz vets and their broods took teapots and sarnies onto the street for a nice old knees-up in honour of a unifying institution. Diana, Fergie, Camilla and the Countess of PR had yet to sully public perceptions.

Today's monarchy is precariously positioned in a sceptical, multi-cultural society. No amount of free teas will resolve its future, and the involvement of government in organising jubilations will attract justifiable flak from loyalists and abolitionists alike. It is early days, but I predict that Jowell's Golden Jubilee will be the Dome of Tony Blair's second term.

Still, what else is there for her to do, except add a pretty face or two to the Blair boys' club? Jowell inherits a department that has lost its permanent secretary, Robin Young, along with its only effective junior minister, Kate Hoey. The addition as arts minister of Baroness Blackstone, a former Covent Garden ballet chair, may appease the luvvie lobby but will change nothing.

All that remains for the new Secretary to do is to sort out the off-Whitehall farce known as the Arts Council of England. Under Gerry Robinson and chief executive Peter Hewitt, the ACE wants to shut down regional arts boards and centralise power. The regions protested, and Smith withheld approval.

The matter now falls into Jowell's lap. If she wants to make a good start, she will slap down Robinson and Hewitt and order a departmental review of the ACE, with a view to its demolition. It will, if nothing else, prolong the ebbing life-span of her vulnerable department.

7 June 2000: How Smith has crippled culture

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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