Not for the first time it is being rumoured that the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is to be dismantled. The bloated ministry is in the firing line because the New Labour government wants to reduce public expenditure.
How things have changed. In 2001 the government was looking at proposals to subsume the DCMS into the Department of Trade and Industry. That was not because it was a failure. On the contrary, arts policy was so important to prime minister Tony Blair’s first term that it had become the model for his industry policy. Instead of moaning about the arts, Blair’s first culture secretary Chris Smith boasted of the contribution of the so-called creative industries to Britain’s balance of payments. Pop music earns us more than car-building does, said Smith - a comparison that said more about the state of industry than it did about record sales.
Nevertheless, back then everything the culture minister touched seemed to turn to gold. He introduced a star-struck prime minister to the Gallagher brothers from Oasis, and shock-artist Damien Hirst. More people went to museums, like the new Tate Modern, than went to see football on the weekend. Smith published figures that showed the ‘creative industries’ earning £112.5billion, or one pound in every 20 earned in the UK. Creative Britain was a flattering self-image that Blair embraced - no wonder a jealous trade and industry minister, Peter Mandelson, wanted to annex Smith’s empire into his own.
The great expectations that Britain had of the creative industries were bound to be disappointed. Chris Smith’s estimate of creative industry earnings was inflated by lumping in all kinds of things that were nothing to do with the arts, like computer software (nearly half the total). The DCMS was talking up high earning industries like design and advertising, which did not need government support. But the government finance these industries attracted was being spent elsewhere, on the subsidised arts, like ballet, classical music and museums. These were not a gain for the balance of payments, but a net loss to the exchequer of £4.5billion (1).
Of course, it is a good thing in its own right that a country supports the arts, and that should continue. But unfortunately the DCMS’s argument that subsidies were actually investments made it difficult to argue for the arts in their own right. Listening to the minister’s speeches it seemed that creativity was all about making money.