By Mimi Doulton, freelance classical soprano
Another day, another reshuffle. When I’m not working as a theatre freelancer, I work part time in children’s arts and arts education campaigning – in six years of doing this job there have been two general elections, seven Secretaries of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (plus one name change in 2017 to add the Digital bit), and five Secretaries of State for Education. Strong and stable, anyone?
Every time we are greeted with news of a reshuffle the following days are filled with a flurry of emails planning how we are going to push which piece of policy under the nose of which minister. What is their voting record? Will they be more amenable to our campaign? And so, here we are again, and it’s time to meet our new Minister:
Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The big news that nobody wanted to hear is that hard-Brexiteer Nadine Dorries isnow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I can hear campaigners across the country who have spent the last year trying to bring Oliver Dowden on side with resolving touring issues post-Brexit screaming into the void – and justifiably so, as it seems like we are now stuck between a rock and a hard place.
This is the same Nadine Dorries who, in 2018, famously tweeted to composer Howard Goodall ‘Why will it [Brexit] be disastrous? Surely your wonderful music transcends physical boundaries. Orchestras will still travel. We are leaving the EU, not Europe.’ One can only hope that the last nine months of issues with Visas, carnets, and cross-border travel will provide us with sufficient evidence to show her otherwise. Although the question of visa-free touring is really one for the Department for Trade, the support of DCMS is vital for them to even begin listening to us.
Other battles that are looming on the horizon concern the BBC – in her words a ‘biased left-wing organisation’; the privatisation of Channel 4; and her mission against ‘Left wing snowflakes [who] are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto.’ All this leads to a rather concerning question about whether artists and arts organisations – particularly those that are publicly funded – are going to enjoy freedom of expression under her tenure. NPOs are already hard-up due to Covid and Brexit; is it too much to hope that their leaders will bite the hand that feeds them and kick back?
Nor does her voting record paint a picture of common ground with your average UK theatre freelancer: against equal gay rights, against same-sex marriage, against promoting human rights, pro regulating trade unions, pro cutting benefits. Yet somehow we have to find a way to work together, and to continue the conversations that we have been having with Oliver Dowden to make progress on Brexit – albeit not much progress had been made but he was, at least, open to discussion. Perhaps we turn the whole argument on its head, and ask Nadine Dorries how she is going to help us make a success of Global Britain?
On a more positive note, one could say that we are lucky to now have a Culture Secretary who is herself a No.1 eBook-selling author. I will let you research that yourselves...
Any Other Business
An arguably welcome victim of the reshuffle is Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage, who was responsible for responding to the Parliamentary debate on visa-free touring across the EU earlier this year. She controversially claimed to support the plight of musicians, whilst also arguing that visa-free touring ‘[was] not consistent with the manifesto commitment to take back control of our borders... or the idea of Brexit that the majority of people in this country voted for’.
It’s also worth noting that Nadhim Zahawi has been appointed Secretary of State for Education – and more significantly that Nick Gibb has finally been removed from post. Nick Gibb has been the right-hand man (read: puppet-operator) of every Education Secretary for the last 11 years; amongst other things he is behind introducing the EBacc, cutting education funding, and promoting STEM whilst slowly crushing the arts. He has been viewed as a blocker by everyone campaigning for a more consistent and fair access to arts education for the last decade. Could this be a glimmer of hope for nurturing the creativity of the next generation?
Perhaps we will finally see the secondary arts pupil premium that we were promised in the 2019 election. Maybe it will even be extended to primary? But I’m getting carried away now...
So, what does this reshuffle say about where Boris Johnson wants to take our country next? We are waving goodbye to some of the ministers who have had the biggest scandals dumped on them, most notably Gavin Williamson. Fresh faces, new scapegoats, new protection for our bumbling Prime Minister who is remarkably still in power.
Some political commentators say that this is Boris Johnson’s real chance to make his mark – after Covid and Brexit, this is his moment to create a true legacy in ‘normal’ times. There is even speculation about a general election in May 2023; although it may be hard to believe from the point of view of our completely-screwed-over industry, apparently this would be striking while the iron’s hot in terms of winning votes for the Conservative party.
So, does this new cabinet mean we are about to see a different side to Boris Johnson? Or will the mission of hard Brexit, arts cuts and ‘culture wars’ continue?
I have my own views on the matter, but enough has been said already – only time will tell.