Culture department still struggling with post-Olympic blues

The Olympics showed off UK culture, and DCMS, at its best. But what now? Tony Marshall/PA

When Dan Jarvis, the shadow culture minister, suggested the coalition might wind up a major Government department, those of us who follow the health of the UK’s creative industries were extremely concerned.

Reducing central government spending is the aim of the comprehensive spending review currently taking place within Whitehall. Jarvis’ tweet centred on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and was subsequently rubbished by government sources. Yet, discussions of the end of DCMS have been constant under the coalition.

There are three reasons why it would not be surprising at all to see the department close and its responsibilities distributed across Whitehall. First Jeremy Hunt’s move to health last year meant DCMS lost a powerful and high-profile politician to argue its case. Second, as a signal of possible intent, a right-wing think tank – the Institute of Economic Affairs – has recently looked at the case for scrapping DCMS. Finally, the department has lost its function and sense of direction under the coalition.

DCMS was important for several reasons under the Labour administration, most notably because of the development of creative industries. Creative industries have a particular history in the UK and did not just appear from out of nowhere. The fact we speak of creative industries at all, whether in the UK or globally, owes much to a network of consultants, think tanks and academics who were able to embed their ideas within a government ministry with a seat at the cabinet table.

The coalition came into DCMS without the same sort of agenda as New Labour. This was partly because much of the work on defining creative industries had already been done. It was also because the two broad policy priorities of localism and dealing with budget deficit were only rhetorically linked to DCMS sectors.

Under the coalition it quickly became clear that DCMS had one major priority, to deliver a successful Olympics. Now it seems to be a department without a major role within the coalition’s plans.

For sure, DCMS is responsible for a range of key issues, including media reform and regulation alongside lower profile activities such as the Local TV project and UK City of Culture. However, the main purpose of DCMS has not been made clear. The most recent attempt, a speech on cultural policy by the minister, Maria Miller, did not improve this situation.

Miller’s speech concentrated on the economic impact of the arts, with a particular focus on tourism and international trade. The thinking behind these themes was a return to the narrow conception of the arts found in policies centred on economic impact developed under the Conservatives during the 1980s. However, the excessive focus on impact seemed to ignore many of the nuances associated with arts policy both under Labour and during Jeremy Hunt’s time as Secretary of State. The speech suggested that deficit reduction, carried out by reducing DCMS’s budget, is now the defining purpose of a post-Olympics DCMS.

DCMS under Miller gives an indication as to the fundamental problem facing British cultural policy. During the lifetime of DCMS, under both Labour and the coalition, it has never been made clear what cultural policy is for in the UK. This is why the closure of DCMS is to be greeted with dismay; removing a minister from cabinet would take the UK even further away from answering this question. Cultural funding would still go on, of course, through the Arts Council, Local Authorities and other parts of central government, but with even less coherence than the present.

The abolition of DCMS would be mistaken in another way, as it would spell the end for the British model of creative industries within government policy. It is hard to see how they would fare at the department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) where they are not seen as a priority sector for industrial policy.

It is clear the UK needs to develop a new type of economy following the crash of 2008. Cultural policy could have an important role within this new economy, but culture will need an industrial policy, driven by a committed government ministry. NESTA have recently published a “manifesto for the creative economy” but any debate on industrial policy for culture needs to be driven and championed by government.

The week before Miller’s speech, DCMS opened a consultation on redefining the creative industries. If this work can be given the same commitment as Labour gave to the creative industries it could refocus DCMS and connect the ministry directly to the coalition’s deficit reduction plans. It might even help answer the question of why the government has a cultural policy at all.