Twenty-five years ago, back in 1997, the word “culture”, at least when uttered within the Westminster corridors of power, generally meant “heritage”.
Under successive Tory administrations, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, notions of a national identity always seemed to be tied up with the past, rarely acknowledging the country’s diversity and contemporary creativity.
That began to change shortly before the 1997 general election and Labour’s landslide victory under the charismatic (and then still untarnished) Tony Blair.
The year before, Conservative secretary of state for national heritage Virginia Bottomley had issued a series of press releases promoting the UK as a buzzy, forward-looking, inventive hub, coining the phrase “cool Britannia”.
However, even then, everything still tended to be seen through a rose-tinted filter of what had gone before. Planned under the Tories, the much-maligned Millennium Dome had been largely based on the Dome of Discovery, one of the attractions at the 1951 Festival of Britain along London’s South Bank.
Bottomley was the figurehead for the Department of National Heritage, created in 1992 under then prime minister John Major. When Blair moved into Number 10 the following spring, among his early moves was to revamp and rename the department and appoint a suitable minister.
The man he chose was Chris Smith, formerly shadow secretary for health, but with a stint on his CV as opposition heritage spokesperson earlier in the decade.
Looking back now, Baron Smith of Finsbury still seems slightly bemused at the events that led to him taking on a role that he would make his own for four years, setting a template that frustratingly few others have been able to follow.
“I was summoned to see the Prime Minister and he said, ‘I want you to do the heritage job’, which sort of came as a completely left-field thing,” Smith says. “I had the presence of mind to ask him two questions.
“The first of which was: ‘Please can I change the name of the department?’ Because you’re absolutely right, heritage is incredibly important, but it doesn’t begin to reflect the whole range of stuff that the department was about and ought to be about. And the other question I asked him was: ‘Do we have to go ahead with the Dome?’ I got the answer I wanted to the first question… “
Blair was keen to include sport in the cultural mix, hence the original name of Department of Culture, Media and Sport (it’s since been expanded to include Digital). The name change was important for Smith, because it signalled a shift in emphasis, one that looked forward, not back.
“It was about embracing the full range of cultural activity that a country like Britain, especially at that period, was able to do, because what we had was a huge flowering of talent and creativity and activity in the cultural space. I think if we’d still had the Department of National Heritage, it would have been a bit of a dampener on that.”
Smith set about establishing four guiding principles that would define the department’s remit and direction: excellence, access, education and the creative economy. Hampered initially by a commitment to keep within budgets planned by Conservative predecessors, the DCMS endured a bumpy start to life.
“Everyone in the world of the arts immediately assumed that Labour had come into power, we had a stonking great majority, of course you can do anything now, and there I was stuck with pretty much no increase at all in what I could spend,” Smith says, with a rueful smile.
“I would regularly go to award ceremonies and things and I’d be berated from the stage by luminaries in the arts world about how they had such high hopes for this new government and there was nothing happening. I was able to make that good two years in, and nearly doubled the amount of money that we were putting into the arts, but it was a sticky period in that first couple of years.”
The other challenge was trying to persuade cabinet colleagues of the importance of cultural endeavours, particularly (and perhaps most surprisingly) when it came to the fourth of Smith’s four fundamentals, that of a creative economy.
“Really the department was not regarded by either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor as central to what the government was all about,” Smith recalls.
“In a way, that was good for me, because they didn’t want to interfere and left me to get on with it, but it did mean that they weren’t putting the attention into the field of the arts that they really should have been.
“I did manage to get things out of them. Gordon Brown, one thing that I found relatively easy to get out of him was help for the film industry. He liked going to movies, he understood how important the film industry was for the UK and I was able to get tax incentives agreed and then refined over the years.
“That was relatively easy. For most of the rest of the time, the Chancellor and the Treasury were not terribly helpful. Sometimes dealing with the Treasury was like stirring treacle.”
Even Blair, never one to miss out on a celeb photo op, was reluctant to commit to anything that his DCMS minister put before him.
“Blair liked schmoozing with the stars,” Smith says. “The famous photograph with Noel Gallagher is a sort of defining image of the early years of the Blair government, but actually getting concrete help out of him for the music industry, for example, was rather more difficult.”
Things began to change when Smith formalised his thinking around the creative economy, spearheaded by the Creative Industries Task Force concept.
In 1988, the DCMS published the Creative Industries Mapping Document, outlining a policy built around the idea of moving from arts as a marker of a civilised society to creativity as an economic driver.
Talking the Treasury’s language was key. “I knew that if I talked about beauty and truth I wouldn’t get anything at all out of them,” Smith explains. “But if I talked about the practical economic implications of what creativity and the arts were all about, then I might have more success.”
Smith instinctively believed that creativity had a vital part to play in the country’s economy, but it was only when official research began that he started to realise just how crucial it was.
“There wasn’t the detail to back it up, which is why I set up the Task Force,” he says. “We discovered that this was well over 10% of GDP, that it employed a million-and-a-half people and that the creative sector was growing at twice the rate relative to the rest of the economy.”
However, even armed with those figures, the Treasury was slow to catch on. Smith would listen to Brown’s speeches waiting in vain for him to give a shout out to the nation’s creative spirit.
Then one day it happened: “I can remember the moment, I was sitting listening to the Today programme in the morning and he was doing an interview, I think it was from Singapore or somewhere, and he said, ‘the industries of the future, financial services, biotech, the science industries and the creative industries…’ and I just leapt out of my chair cheering, because he’d finally got it.”
Not everyone approved, especially within the creative sector, where the idea of monetising the arts was seen by many as diluting and cheapening aesthetic ideals.
Smith would frequently find himself profoundly debating the values and meaning of creativity when all he really wanted was a quiet night out at the theatre.
“It took time, but we got there,” he says now. “I happen to think that Britain is fairly naturally good at this, I used to compare what Nye Bevin had said back in the 1940s, he said: ‘We are an island of coal surrounded by a sea of fish’. And I used to say: ‘We are an island of creativity, surrounded by a world that speaks English.’ And those two things are incredibly useful for us, in terms of the impact of the creative industries.”
Having spent 10 years as chair of the Advertising Standards Authority, Smith is quick to include the advertising sector as an essential part of all this. “I think that the combination of effective self-regulation with the creativity of the sector has produced a very successful industry. And of course it goes up and down with economic cycles, but there’s still a lot of hope and purpose and good prospect there.”
Smith left his DCMS role in 2001, replaced by Tessa Jowell, who led the department for seven years. That two ministers were able to remain in their respective posts for well over a decade seems astonishing now, with a long and winding list of successors barely lasting a year at a time.
Few have impressed Smith, who points to a lack of focus on cuts in funding to local authorities as one significant impact on culture and creativity. At the time of writing, the present incumbent, Nadine Dorries (appointed September 2021), continues to cheerily court controversy.
Again, Smith is unimpressed. “My principal advice to her would be please resign,” he says.
“I think her war on the BBC is unforgivable. There are relatively few things that we do better than anywhere else in the world, and our national broadcaster is one of them. She really has done something very foolish there.
“Her willingness to contemplate selling off Channel 4 is likewise a big, big mistake; her devotion to what she would call cultural wars and attack on supposed ‘wokeness’ is a total misunderstanding of where the British public are at and their ability to understand the complexities of our history and sense of identity.”
Twenty-five years on, that keeness to protect and promote our great creative assets continues to burn bright.
Picture: Colin Stout