Ed Vaizey @ London Design Festival

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and Creative Industries, is a very charming raconteur. At one point during his ‘in conversation’ with Times critic Alex O’Connell for London Design Festival, he audibly admonished himself halfway through a sentence: ‘I must learn to be more discreet…’ Perhaps still adjusting to the verbal self-censoring required of being in Government? Disarming and witty, when O’Connell asked for his thoughts on the suggestion that he is ‘Boris without the rubbish’, he graciously responded, ‘I’m Boris without the enormous, classically-trained brain.’ It’s hard to gauge how much art goes into his artlessness, but nevertheless it’s a pleasing trait in a politician: Vaizey often appears as though he might be about to wander refreshingly off-message, or that he’s imparting something he perhaps shouldn’t.

But is this outward charm simply the distracting face (along with that of the not-too-hard-on-the-eye Jeremy Hunt) of a governmental team who behind the scenes are under the questionable influence of Rupert Murdoch, have little sympathy for the arts, and are slashing budgets at will?  That scenario would be worst case for the majority of Vaizey’s audience during this LDF event, and probably what not a few of them suspect, in spite of their laughter at his jokes: are we being duped by the public school boy charm, enticed into believing the Tories aren’t really That Bad?

It’s hard to pinpoint, in the melange of bluster and refreshing honesty, where the truth-line actually lies, and understandably much of the audience was concerned with pressing him on the thorny issue of funding cuts. But this much is clear: he does have a natural sympathy and understanding of ‘the Arts’. As a Shadow Minister (and still now) he (or rather his office) produced an excellent weekly briefing on the Cultural and Creative Industries, sometimes an excuse for Ben Bradshaw-bashing, but generally incredibly well-researched. In partnership with Damian Collins, formerly of M&C Saatchi and Lexington Communications, now a colleague in the House of Commons, he instigated the Conservative Creative and Cultural Industries Network. And, as is often cited, his mother is an eminent art critic. But, however reassuring it is to have a Minister who will at least be a willing and enlightened advocate for his portfolio, as he himself pointed out, these things don’t mean he will be able to extort huge sums from the Treasury when a minimum of 25% reductions are being demanded of Ministers across the board.

Where Design impinges on his understanding is less clear. Always slightly uncomfortable with its own placement, subsumed in the ‘Creative Industries’ portfolio, there are in fact myriad ways in which politicians might choose to understand the point and usefulness of the design sector. This particular discussion focussed mainly on The Arts, rather than Design, which was perhaps slightly disappointing given the context of the conversation (the London Design Festival), but not surprising given the nature of the questioner (The Times Arts Editor). However Vaizey’s few comments on Design were both encouraging and slightly obfuscating.

He said the outlook for innovation bodies like NESTA and the Design Council – the latter currently under review – was broadly positive. He said he recognised that British design is globally important. He said he knows we’re good at it. (‘Maybe it’s because Brits are natural non-conformists’.) He said he was there to make it clear that government knew and appreciated the Festival was happening. He said, upon prompting from Sir John Sorrell, that he recognised the opportunity he personally had to bridge and join up BIS and DCMS, as a Minister for both, and perhaps encourage certain other Departments (DfE?) to be a little more progressive.

Indeed, that he was there at all is not insignificant given the Labour heritage of the festival: LDF was inaugurated under the previous Labour government in 2003, Chairman Sir John Sorrell held several quango posts under the last government, Director Ben Evans was a speechwriter for Neil Kinnock, and in 2008 Mandelson made the opening speech. But then Vaizey was always diligent in doing the rounds with industry as a Shadow Minister, and is thus fairly well-versed and -connected.

On the more complex stuff he was vague. Lesley Morris of the Design Council asked if he felt there was an understanding across government of the social and economic value of design. His answer to this, presumably intended to reassure, was in fact oddly off-point. (As a benchmark, the top-marks, no-BS answer for this audience would probably have acknowledged that, whilst some politicians have grasped the fact that the design industry is a national asset, very few in government comprehend the strategic usefulness of design, and the wider contribution the UK’s own design industry could make socially, economically, and to government.)

What he actually said was, that although it was perhaps unknown to the general public, there were quite a few ‘relationships’ between Tory MPs and designers. His examples were Samantha Cameron – the Creative Director of Bond Street stationer, Smythson – and George Osborne, whose father founded the firm of fabric and wallpaper designers, Osborne & Little. Whatever you may think of their design credentials, it is still highly questionable to imply ‘knowledge’ by means of a personal relationship, and particularly in the realm of politics and government, and particularly in relation to a Tory administration. Not to mention the fact that with regard to any other sector – health, for example – such a statement would have sounded absurd: my Mum’s a medical doctor actually so, yes, I do consider myself qualified to advise. (And forget the old adage ‘a letterhead never killed anyone’. Poor design does kill people, occasionally.)

This is the kind of preconception the design profession is up against, politically, and its own inherent tribalism doesn’t help. In persuading the government to treat it as a profession like any other, a little unity within its own ranks wouldn’t hurt. It also wouldn’t hurt to turn up when the Minister responsible for your industry is giving a personal audience, floor open for questions – even if it is 8.30 in the morning. Perhaps politicians are just better morning people than designers.

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