WWhen the head of the National Maritime Museum, Charles Dunston, wrote to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) to extend Dr. The letter, written in the summer of 2020, said Hawke was an important member of the board of directors. She did not mention that he was the only guardian other than white. He did not refer to his academic position, his documentary on the history of the BBC, or the MBE. There was absolutely no need to say any of that. No one had ever heard of not extending the guardianship: the guardianship was automatic.
However, a department official called Dunston to say that Hoque’s tenure would not be renewed. They said there was no requirement for the culture minister, Oliver Dowden, to justify the decision, but noted that Hook had “liked” the anti-government tweets. That fall, Dunston urged Dowden by phone to change his mind. He will not be able to defend the Minister’s decision in front of the Museum and his fellow trustees.
In January, though, Dunstone heard again from DCMS: Hoque’s regency will certainly not be renewed. Dunston, with honor, resigned. For a dizzy moment, I was told that the other secretaries, so I was told, thought of going en masse – “I am Spartacus!” Moment – until they realized that doing so would provide the government with the opportunity to fill the council with the chosen ones. Keep in mind that Dunston, the billionaire founder of TalkTalk, and his colleagues – who included a retired sea lord and then president of the Lloyd’s Register – were far from as “awakened warriors” as might be imagined.
For his part, Lee Hawk said: “I was shocked, disappointed and puzzled.” “People should draw their own conclusions about whether my previous academic research and writing contributed to government actions.” (A DCMS spokesperson told me: “There is no automatic assumption of reassignment, and ministers may decide to reassign or launch a campaign to attract new talent.”)
I’ve had my own little research through Hoque’s tweets. There is a lot of enthusiasm for the English football team. There is also little about British history, which he suggested “needs to be rewritten to include the stories of its ethnic minorities and to recognize their important contribution to the development of the British national story.” #colonization #Inclusive #multiplestories. Fairly mild things – but this kind of thing is a red flag for these “culture wars” – suspended government.
The appointment of political allies to influential public positions is nothing new. Under Thatcher, Governor Marmaduke Hussey became president of the BBC. Under the leadership of New Labor was Gavin Davis, who once worked with Harold Wilson and James Callahan. “What is different now is the breadth of the campaign and the close involvement of 10 Downing Street,” Peter Riddell recently said. Until September, Riddle was commissioner of public appointments, responsible for ensuring the fairness of the system.
In short, the government strives to shape English public bodies in its image. The project is being unabashedly pushed forward—as in the case of Ofcom, where the process of hiring a boss is restarted so that former mail editor favorite Paul Ducker, who was initially dismissed, can have another crack. In the arts arena, what is seen as the center-left consensus born in the Blair and Brown years has been targeted for reform. The arts have become a battleground where ideas of image, heritage, and national history are contested. At the heart of No 10 is a fervent dislike of identity politics, and a dislike of the suggestion that the British imperial project was harmful. This was born in part from the assumption that anything that even indicated a lack of patriotism is a turn for voters to the “red wall.”
A look at the painting of the National Portrait Gallery in London gives an idea of how this came about: the museum responsible for bringing the image of England back to itself, and currently in the midst of major remodeling, has on its painting Chris Grayling; Jacob Rees-Mogg (Speaker of the House of Commons is an automatic appointment); Inaya Folaren Iman is the culture and social editor at the far-right GB News. The boss is David Ross, who “facilitated” Boris and Carrie Johnson’s famous holiday at Mustique.
Munira Mirza, Boris Johnson’s cultural advisor, who was behind this reorganization campaign, when he was Mayor of London, head of Policy Unit No. 10, and her husband, Dougie Smith, a Conservative Party aide, is standing. Trawling tweets is not just a risk assessment for inflammatory or abusive things buried deep in a person’s forage, but a hunt for disloyalty. One person who recently sat as an independent member of an interview panel told me they were drawn to a candidate’s tweet that was unfavorable about Brexit. They told me they replied, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
It is very clear that government does not have much time for the rules, established practices, or unspoken liberal rules that have traditionally channeled behavior into generally accepted channels. Ejecting Hawke wasn’t the thing to do, but since it was possible, he did. It’s not supposed to leak the names of the preferred candidates before the public hiring process begins, but it has done so with Dacre for Ofcom. The process itself is designed to be transparent and rigorous: it includes a corresponding panel that includes at least one independent member and is headed by a civil servant. The committee will decide who it considers the best candidate, along with one or two others deemed “appointable”. Riedel expressed concerns that ministers were ignoring recommendations and selecting candidates deemed “unpopular”. He said recently that there has already been an attempt to do so. Johnson has a shape. When he was mayor, he tried to insist that former Evening Standard editor-in-chief Veronica Wadley become president of the London Arts Council, despite her interviewing committee disapproving of her. (She was banned at the time by Labor Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw, and later took the job under then-Conservative Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.)
How important is all this? Boards of trustees are instinctively conservative: this institutional rigidity may serve as protection against right-wing radicalism as much as it frustrates those on the left who desire change. No 10’s direct influence on art institutions does not extend deep into the arts (and not much beyond England): apart from the National Museums, Arts Council England and a handful of others, English arts organizations are responsible for appointing their own board of directors individuals. However – and it is indisputable that once the BBC is brought into the equation – those who fall under direct government influence are particularly influential.
The most important function of trustees is to select the directors of organizations, and as the Conservative Party’s influence on boards of directors deepens, this may begin to affect the way institutions are run and what the public sees. In the meantime, don’t expect the museum’s top officials to utter the Conservative “decolonization” any time soon; Institutional vigilance around certain regions – empire and slavery – may bring them into conflict with their masses and even the workforce, as many of their smaller members increasingly lose patience with structural inequalities.
In general, the climate created by a government obsessed with “culture wars” is very destructive. When employees of a rather boring institution like Historic England – responsible for the list of buildings and monuments – receive threats from the far right, something is wrong with the body politic. Conservatives must be very careful what they wish for.