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Will Maria Miller's case for the arts win over George Osborne?

By Paul Goodman
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MILLER MARIA STANDINGIn Othello, Iago suggests to the Moor that ideas can have value, but that money has none: "Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing:/'Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands."  The audience knows as it listens that the man is manipulating his master - that although Iago has just told Othello that good name is an "immediate jewel" of the soul, he earlier said to Cassio that "reputation is an idle and most false imposition".  But Shakespeare's words have a life beyond the motives of those who speak them, and Iago's rubbishing of money and praise of reputation is an unforgettable expression of the notion that there some things that money can't buy.

This is also the view, pretty much, of those who stalk the commanding heights of Britain's cultural life - its concert halls and theatres and cinemas and libraries and museums and opera houses.  Their belief that art is worth more than money sits comfortably alongside their conviction that it none the less needs a lot of it (courtesy of the taxpayer).  In principle, they have a point, and anyone who doubts it should see Nicholas Hynter's mesmerising production of Othello at the National Theatre - proof that state subsidy can sometimes produce brilliant results.  In practice, though, there are a thousand qualifications, ranging from the obvious rejoinder that most subsidised art isn't as outstanding as Hynter's to the inescapable fact that the arts must shoulder part of the burden of deficit reduction.  Rightly or wrongly, voters value hospital theatres above artistic ones.

This being so, artists who assail politicians who defend the public funding of the arts are making a tactical mistake, however meritable their case may be.  These include (as it happens) Hynter himself, who attacked a speech made recently by Maria Miller while simultaneously defending its central tenet - that there must be an economic argument for arts spending as well as less material ones.  The speech in question wasn't especially elegant, but it had a clear purpose.  The Culture Secretary was searching for a new means of defending her budget.  "I come to you today and ask you to help me reframe the argument: to hammer home the value of culture to our economy," she said.  The plea for allies could scarcely have been more open.

"That’s the argument that I, as Culture Secretary, intend to make in my approach to this spending round – and I need all your help in that endeavour," she added, just in case her audience was in any doubt.  Today's Financial Times suggests that she is sticking to her guns.  The nub of its story is that Miller believes that her budget has economic value, that the Treasury doesn't understand this - and that she is therefore refusing to agree to a ten per cent in her budget.  This stand-off is perhaps less dramatic than it sounds.  The Culture Secretary is careful not to criticise George Osborne.  Her tussle is with Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury - and of course a Liberal Democrat.  Sources close to Miller emphasise that Osborne appreciates the arts, which is true enough.  More prosaically, the Culture Secretary may be gambling on her budget being a relatively small one in the first place.

It could be that Miller already has a sense of how the endgame for her department will play out, and that the Treasury intends to turn from it to others that offer bigger savings.  But on the face of it, her defiance is a throw of the dice.  Her backers claim that she is a strong Secretary of State, who kept control of the Government's response to Leveson, steered the same-sex marriage bill through the Commons more or less intact, and has had the strength to sack her Permanent Secretary.  Her critics reply that she was out of the Downing Street loop on Leveson,  and that just as poor craftsmen blame their tools, so weak secretaries of state dump on their permanent secretaries.

I have heard very senior Conservative Ministers be damning about Miller's support of the bill (though to be fair to all concerned, passions about the measure run high).  "I no longer know what she believes," one said to me recently.  What is certain amidst these conflicting views is that only one woman Secretary of State counts as a Big Beast - Theresa May.  Justine Greening was outrageously briefed against before being moved out of Transport.  The other Theresa - Theresa Villiers - was first in the Shadow Cabinet, then out of the real one, and then brought into it.  Caroline Spelman and Cheryl Gillan both left the Cabinet at the last reshuffle, amidst claims that David Cameron told the first she was too old and was drinking when he dismissed the second.   Miller may have decided that since she is under fire - her aides are fiercely denying claims that her department may be abolished - attack is the most promising form of defence.

The best that can happen for her is that the Chancellor looks elsewhere for savings.  The worst is that Miller is hauled before the Star Chamber, has her reputation trashed by the Treasury, and becomes the next Cabinet Minister to be scarred by Tony Blair's "feral beast".  (The last one to be so - Jeremy Hunt, Miller's predecessor - is recovering from his wounds.)  The most likely outcome is somewhere in between.  Miller reaches a settlement with the Treasury.  It is agreed that she briefs this as a victory.  She does so...and the Treasury simply trashes her reputation later (or tries to).  "Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!"


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