Culture? Well, if you must – but make it noisy.
Posted on November 2, 2021
When Boris Johnson appoints people to his cabinet, he knows exactly what he’s playing at. For one thing, with six women and six people of colour in his closest circle of advisers, he leaves his political opponents with no room for complaint in the tick-box equalities stakes.
He’s no fool, either, when it comes to allowing his courtiers to endure painfully prolonged stays of execution. While he had Gavin Williamson and Matt Hancock – even in his pre-handsy period – hanging around to absorb enough of the public’s derision, he’d have been foolish to replace them too quickly with somebody half-competent.
So the appointment of Nadine Dorries as the minister for culture is no momentary aberration. It is calculated and considered. And while Johnson’s orange mentor across the Atlantic may have tumbled inelegantly from grace, the lessons he imparted have been well learnt. Go hard and be unapologetic; offend and outrage whenever it might be prudent to do so; when in doubt, insult and attack.
To be clear, the fact that Dorries ate the nether parts of animals on TV is not the issue here. If you’ve ever tucked into a sausage, you’ll have done much worse. Similarly, she’s not the only politician to enhance her profile by appearing on daytime TV fillers. And what if she’s not averse to finding the odd cosy sinecure for family and friends? What else, she might justifiably ask, is the holding of high office for? Isn’t that right, Dido?
There’s plenty to admire about her. Where the accusation is often levelled at politicians that they do not understand the outside world, a glance at Dorries’s accomplishments as a nurse, entrepreneur and novelist exempts her from such criticism. She is working-class, unapologetic, forthright and uncowed by the posh boys of the parliamentary world. Were it not for her swivel-eyed views on a slew of social issues from sex education to benefit claimants to abortion, or her insistence that she’s an MP because God wants her to be, or a certain looseness in the probity of her expense claims, she could well be very good company.
Her appointment to high office came as something of a shock, even to insiders. On reflection, however, there is a Tory-driven logic to it. This is the party, lest we forget, whose members consider Liz Truss to be the cabinet member they most respect and admire (that’s not a misprint, by the way) and many of whose voters look at Labour and fail to hear unrepentant, direct opinions on anything. Dorries is a huge admirer of Johnson himself and remains an enthusiastic advocate of the benefits of Brexit – and in a cabinet where loyalty to that project trumps everything from ability to talent to experience, such firmness is non-negotiable, as well as being the key to the offices with the best views over Westminster.
Johnson can trust to her to charge headlong into culture wars about statues, gender-identity, subsidies for the arts and the threat of woke Christmas pantos. She’ll be a walking headline, a willing provocateur and a pot-stirrer for all the things he would like Farage and Katie Hopkins to keep on doing if only they weren’t quite so clumsy about it.
High on the list of the new minister’s targets will, of course, be the BBC. Depending on who you talk to, it’s a broadcaster which is either the mouthpiece of the establishment or a lefty-driven, metropolitan vanity project paid for by the taxpayer. Laura Kuenssberg either lives in the Prime Minister’s pocket or is an insolent upstart. A female Doctor Who represents either progress or political correctness gone mad; Gary Lineker is either affable and intelligent or outdated and overpaid. There might just be someone in higher office at the Beeb with a satisfied grin at having achieved such balance.
The fact that Dorries has already had an early pop at the BBC is almost immaterial. It is neither the content of her observations nor the extent to which her criticisms could withstand close scrutiny which are important. It’s the fact that she’s picked a target about which plenty of people have an opinion and which achieves that holiest of modern grails, significant clickbait. We’re talking fanning heat here, not shedding light.
It’s a technique frequently employed by her boss, so it’s no surprise that he sees in her a protégé of whom he can be proud. Dorries can be relied upon to contribute ever more energetically to the fog of bluster and bullshit that he hopes will obscure the real issues affecting people’s lives – and with which he and his government are so demonstrably ill-equipped to deal.
Want to renege on your own agreement about Ireland the EU? Cover it up with a confected row with those Frenchy fishermen. Want to gloss over the record number of Covid deaths? Continue to spread the myth that our vaccination programme leads the world. Want to prove your green credentials? Treat us to some ‘one minute to midnight’ rhetoric while opening coal mines and cheapening domestic flights. Never mind the content, it’s showtime that counts.
The new culture minister might surprise us yet, but while she poses and preens as the working-class hero who will brook no nonsense from the opera-goers and the snowflakes of cancel-culture, heaven help the independent artist or the start-up musician, the local theatre or the experimental dance group. While Arts Council England warns of museums closing and local authorities scrabble for money for play schemes, can we really rely on the author The Four Streets (‘the worst novel I have read in ten years’ – The Daily Telegraph) to lend them a sympathetic ear?
The answer is no and the answer is also that it doesn’t matter to her or to Johnson. Her job is not to promote the arts or to support digital media. It’s to be spikey, no-nonsense Nadine, lining up behind Priti Patel to feed red meat to those looking for someone to blame. Her job is to pursue a confected culture war to consume the clickosphere while the big boys try to conceal their utter ineptitude.
And all we can hope for is that she doesn’t stay long and, even more importantly, doesn’t decide to write a novel about it.