In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.
Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.
With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.
Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.
The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.
There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.
Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. “It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.
Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business.