Ed Vaizey is an entertaining man to talk to. The Arts Minister does not, however, amuse all commentators. According to Peter Oborne, writing on Saturday in the Daily Mail,
“There are, generally, two types of Government ministers. We have those who attempt substantial positive changes to the way we live – such as Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary or Iain Duncan Smith as he tackles the insidious culture of welfare dependency. Of course, this inevitably involves courage, risk-taking and making enemies. Then there are those who seek the easy route. Arts Minister Ed Vaizey falls into this second category. This was confirmed this week when a host of luvvies from the arts world sycophantically congratulated him for becoming the longest ever serving Arts Minister, having completed five-and-a-half years in the job. Their grovelling praise simply proves that Vaizey has been their puppet.”
In this interview, Vaizey agrees that on the whole “the arts vote Labour”, but adds that it is useful to be able to talk to them, and offers a staunch defence of Tracey Emin, one of the artists denounced by Oborne. The Arts Minister also makes a point few other members of the Government would have the audacity to voice, even if it occurred to them: “There’s a lot of merit in not doing too much.”
Government does not always demand the exercise of superhuman courage and energy in order to save the nation from mortal peril. There is a place for the less heroic virtue of avoiding doing harm, while winning support for modest measures of improvement. So the Arts Minister implies: and it is this less confrontational style which perhaps accounts for David Cameron’s continued occupancy of 10 Downing Street.
Vaizey began by identifying the artists of the works on the walls of his office, at the Parliament Street end of the vast Edwardian block once monopolised by the Treasury: “Lucian Freud. Paul Nash. John Hubbard, who taught me to swim. I had this fantasy, when I first became Arts Minister, that I’d put John Hubbard, who’s a very old family friend, on my wall, and he’d suddenly come back into fashion. And absolutely nothing’s happened.”
ConHome: “Is he still alive?”
Vaizey: “He is still alive.”
ConHome: “You should insist on a major retrospective at Tate Modern.”
Vaizey [moving on to another work of art]: “Damian Hurst.”
ConHome: “What’s that strip of, um, green perspex?”
Vaizey: “I’ve no idea. It’s been on my wall for two years.” He consults a folder. “It’s Jyll Bradley, ‘Green/Light (zips)’. When I first became Arts Minister I asked this rather formidable lady who runs the Government Art Collection, I said to her, ‘I want this, I want that,’ and she turned to me and said: ‘We are not an Argos catalogue.’”
ConHome: “She wanted first to tell you what you might be lucky enough to obtain.”
ConHome: “And you have a piano [strictly speaking, a keyboard bearing the Blüthner name]. Are you already a pianist?”
Vaizey: “No. I haven’t played the piano since I was eight. I’m having my first piano lesson next week.”
ConHome: “The general belief is that people in the arts hate the Tories. Is this still true?”
Vaizey: “Well all things being equal, I think the arts would vote Labour, on the whole, yes. I went to Gilbert and George’s studio the other day, and despite their liberal use of expletives in their art, I think the thing that would shock the arts establishment most is their very large poster of David Cameron on their wall.”
ConHome: “That’s really subversive.”
Vaizey: “That’s what subversive is in the arts. To be a Conservative is to be a subversive.”
ConHome: “Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who made that party political broadcast for Labour… I think it’s strange that it persists, this kind of behaviour. I wonder whether artistic people who are in fact deeply Conservative, or conservative, just don’t really talk about politics very much?”
Vaizey: “Yes, I think they’re either apolitical or they don’t get involved. The Left has always lent itself to large-scale posturing and abstract ideas, so people speak out. And poor old Tracey Emin got a lot of flak in the arts world when she said she’s going to vote Conservative. And again it’s probably the most radical political statement made by an artist in the last 50 years.”
ConHome: “You’re still a chum of hers?”
ConHome: “Because according to Oborne, ‘Vaizey is a keen fan of Tracey Emin…no honest Conservative Arts Minister would have anything to do with such a meretricious figure as Emin.’”
Vaizey: “Well I think that first of all it’s an honour to be in his orbit. I was thinking about this. Why would a Conservative like Tracey Emin? First of all she’s an artist who came out in support of the Conservatives, very prominently, in 2010 and in 2015. Secondly she comes from a modest background and has become a hugely successful artist.
“Thirdly she’s an entrepreneur: she runs her own business, she employs people. She not only sells her own art but there’s a wider Tracey Emin brand. So she grows people and pays her taxes. And she raises millions for charity, particularly the NSPCC, every year. Which of those traits would a Conservative dislike?”
ConHome: “Well what a Conservative would dislike is the unmade bed.”
Vaizey: “The other great irony is you will find, if you walk into any contemporary art gallery or the Frieze Art Fair, a legion of quite prominent Conservative supporters, all of whom collect contemporary art.”
ConHome: “There was the letter in The Times from a lot of people congratulating you on overtaking Jennie Lee and becoming the longest-serving Arts Minister. Perhaps you’re carefully understating the level of Conservative support now.”
Vaizey: “No, no, I’ve never hidden the fact that I think the arts community as a whole is left-wing. But to be serious for a second, I wanted to do this job because I grew up in a cultural world and I care about it, and to be fair to them, they have met me half way.
“So what the arts world values most of all is recognition, that people appreciate the value of what they do. They know that’s the case with me and they certainly know it’s the case with John Whittingdale as well. And so, you know, lots of unpopular decisions that we had to make, I don’t think have been greeted with the level of hostility they might have been, because people feel they can talk to us.
ConHome: “What were these unpopular decisions?”
Vaizey: “Well, funding cuts. It’s always about funding. If you reduce funding, you’re unpopular. If you increase it, you’re popular.”
ConHome: “When are we going to get this White Paper of yours?”
Vaizey: “In the spring, which as you know in Whitehall runs from February to November.”
ConHome: “I see. Between now and November.”
Vaizey: “I’m hoping we can get it out in the next few months. There is a draft almost ready for circulation.”
ConHome: “And have you written the draft?”
Vaizey: “I have contributed a lot to it.”
ConHome: “And can you give any idea of what’s going to be in it?”
Vaizey: “Yes. There have been extensive blogs.”
ConHome: “Yes, I did cast an eye over a blog. There were four points in it.”
Vaizey: “Some of it’s rather policy-jargony. So firstly, it’s about ‘the role that culture plays in creating places that people want to live, work and visit’… The second thing is access to the arts… Thirdly we need to be much more creative about funding…
“And we need to recognise the huge impact that culture has on Britain’s image around the world. Those are the four main things. I can tell I’ve inspired you.”
ConHome: “What are the things you’re most proud of having achieved so far, during this record-breaking period of office? Especially as you had four years before to think about it, as well as a lifetime before that when you were familiar with the world of the arts.”
Vaizey: “Well I think I would be quite self-critical. To a certain extent I haven’t wanted to achieve too much, if that doesn’t sound too perverse. There’s a lot of merit in not doing too much…”
ConHome: “Very good. I haven’t heard that from a minister for years.”
Vaizey: “…in carrying on as normal, rather than suddenly coming up with your own wheezes and programmes that suddenly upend everything. So in that sense I’m proud of that.
“In terms of funding, although we had to cut the grant-in-aid to the Arts Council, we did increase the amount of money from the Lottery into the arts and heritage.
“I think there are two programmes on heritage I’m proud of. One was to encourage them to set up a fund to celebrate anniversaries. I was extremely frustrated when the anniversary of the King James Bible came round and nothing really was being done.
“I found it very frustrating when the people running Waterloo 200 came in and it wasn’t easy to access funds. So we’ve put aside a pot of money so that any organisation that wants to commemorate a significant national anniversary can go to them. And the other thing I got out of George was a fund for the repair of our cathedrals. £20 million.
“And the third heritage thing I’m really proud of is the separation of English Heritage… You’ve now got Historic England, which is the regulator, doing the listings, and English Heritage, which is a charity with an endowment of £80 million, so it can now run itself with a proper focus on the buildings it looks after.
“On the arts side, I’m most proud of leaving the Arts Council alone. But also we introduced these things called Music Education Hubs, and I’m really proud of that, and the In Harmony programme, which is really intense orchestral music tuition with kids from very socially excluded backgrounds.
“We’ve also achieved something called the Cultural Gift Scheme, which sounds a bit boring, in fact I can see you sighing as I say it.”
ConHome: “I have such bad manners.”
Vaizey: “For years people said, why can I only give something if I’m dead? So we’ve set up a scheme where you can give an object to the nation and set it against income tax.”
ConHome: “Who are your heroes?”
Vaizey: “Gosh. Before this interview I thought I’d better be able to remember which was the last play I saw, and the last film. My heroes are really quite prosaic. My parents are my heroes. I’m very conservative in my career, in the sense, you know, my father [John Vaizey, ennobled in Harold Wilson's resignation honours in 1976, died 1984] was involved in politics and my mother [Marina Vaizey, art critic] was involved in the arts, and I’ve combined them.”
ConHome: “But you were never Labour were you? Because your Dad eventually, having supported Labour, was one of a number of distinguished figures who moved from the Left to the Right about the time Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Leader.”
Vaizey: “Hugh Thomas…”
ConHome: “Paul Johnson, Kingsley Amis… When you were asked which Shakespeare character you’d like to play, you said Falstaff. Poor old Falstaff had rather a sad end: ‘I know thee not, old man’: a crushing put-down. But I suppose he had a lot of fun on the way.”
Vaizey [patting his tummy]: “You wouldn’t need to put any extra padding on.”