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Satire is dead. It died on September 15, the day the prime minister reshuffled the latest version of his post-truth cabinet. No serious country would ever put Nadine Dorries anywhere near high office, yet that is what has happened with her appointment as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Some had thought her predecessor Oliver ‘Dimbo’ Dowden out of his depth, but even in a particularly shallow talent pool this new appointment represents an absolute nadir. Though weary cynics might conclude that it doesn’t really matter which sycophantic apparatchik gets the job—she is, after all, the tenth culture secretary in less than ten years—a look at her record does give cause for worry.

It’s not long ago that Dorries, whose main claim to fame is as a wannabe TV personality, tweeted that ‘Left-wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech. Sadly, it must be true, history does repeat itself. It will be music next.’ Given her brief, that ‘it will be music next’ suddenly sounds ominous. Dorries is the government’s stoker-in-chief of a phoney culture war that’s distracting everyone from the real issues in culture, including a provision for music education that is shrinking disastrously under this administration. Then there is her appalling record of comments on gay rights; as the Scottish National Party’s shadow culture secretary John Nicolson said, responding to her appointment, ‘Just as well there are no homosexuals in the arts sector’. Though we have got used to low-ranking cabinet ministers being given the culture brief, her move can only be interpreted as a reflection of an uncultured prime minister’s lazy contempt for the arts. It’s another smack in the teeth for artists already living with narrower horizons, fewer freedoms, more visas, increased red tape, higher costs, longer queues and ruined businesses—just a few of the outcomes so far of Britain’s crisis-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, one imposed on the country to supposedly resolve an internal squabble in Ms Dorries’s party.

Un peu d’histoire. The post of an arts or culture secretary is a relatively modern invention and one that can be traced to the idealism of postwar rebuilding. Under de Gaulle’s administration, France was the first country to create such a post, and its first minister of cultural affairs was the enigmatic and quixotic novelist André Malraux, who held office for 11 years, from 1958 to ’69. Malraux’s motto was droit à la culture, the idea of democratizing access to culture. Where else—apart from the Czech Republic and Senegal—could a literary figure set a nation’s agenda? Well, she may not have been a literary figure, but Britain’s first Minister for the Arts was a formidable idealist: Jennie Lee, for whom the post was created in 1964. She held it for six years, during which time she played a leading part in founding the Open University and boosted the role (back when it still mattered) of the Arts Council. In recent times, only a few countries have been fortunate to have serious culture ministers, but one who was energetically dedicated to the arts is Poland’s Waldemar Dąbrowski, now Intendant of Polish National Opera. Britain may have sunk to a new low, but at least with this seamless transition from bad to worse—and dim to dimmer—we can rest assured that neither Dowden nor Dorries will ever run an opera house.

Opera, November 2021


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