As DCMS celebrates its twentieth birthday, our Deputy Head of News (and 1992 veteran) Toby Sargent looks back on two decades of life as the Whitehall guardians of the nation’s ‘glittering trinkets’…
It came out of something of a blue sky, to be honest. With a General Election having been fought, and the results finally coming through in the early hours of Friday morning, it was the following day – Saturday 11 April 1992 – that the first bits of Government business were done. Custom and practice suggested that the Cabinet reshuffle would become public as the day wore on, with junior ministerial posts coming in the days that followed and, if things went as expected, a sense of what the Government was going to do, in terms of policies and priorities, emerging in the following week, as the new Secretaries of State settled in.
As it turned out, though, this was no ordinary post-election Saturday. Because a brand-new Government department was created: The Department for National Heritage (DNH). It brought together a variety of leisure and ‘quality of life’ interests, including the arts, tourism, broadcasting, sport, film and the built heritage, as well as sponsorship in government of a family of Non Departmental Public Bodies that numbered more than 50 and included some of the best known Quangos (as they were known in those days).
Glancing back at the press cuttings in that 1992 spring, we find our first Secretary of State insisting that the new department was ‘not a Frankenstein creation cobbled together from bits of bodies lying around in other departments’, and nor was it ‘some poor little tug boat limping along behind the rest of the fleet.’
Indeed one former Arts Minister suggested a better title for us might be The Department for Arts, Sport and Heritage, or DASH for short.
Others, though, were less optimistic. The author Robert Harris wrote in The Observer likening the DNH to Harold Wilson’s ‘gimmicky’ Department for Economic Affairs (DEA), a creation of the 1960s. He feared we were a ‘magpie’s nest of glittering trinkets stolen from other departments: prizes that will one day have to be returned to their rightful owners,’ before predicting that ‘there is a good chance that the national heritage ministry will end in fiasco in a couple of years . . . being killed off quietly when nobody is looking, just like the DEA.’
But one thing that seemed to intrigue just about everyone was the idea of the new National Lottery that DNH was to set up to help fund its areas of interest (as well as marking – in some, at that point unspecified, way – the forthcoming Millennium). This Lottery, some said, might raise as much as £1 billion!
Brave new world
For those of us working in the new department, though, the move to this brave new world was less breath-taking. Essentially, those who found themselves in the magpie’s nest, polishing those trinkets, were doing so in the same rooms as before, with the same basic line management and, overwhelmingly, much the same policies to support. Yes, there were two new ministers and a new Permanent Secretary, but we did not in fact all come together under one roof – at the top of Whitehall, in Cockspur Street – for many months.
And mercifully, the department was not ‘killed off quietly (or otherwise) after a couple of years.’ It turned into The Department for Culture, Media and Sport a few years later, grew in terms of responsibility and weight as it took on things as diverse as the creative industries, the move to digital broadcasting, gambling, horse racing, telecoms and broadband, entertainment licensing, the Queen’s Golden (and Diamond) Jubilees, any number of commemorations to mark anniversaries in our public and military history and, of course, the changing face of the National Lottery which did, in the end, rather exceed those giddy expectations of raising £1 billion for its good causes. And has, in fact, surpassed it – so far – by a factor of nearly forty.
An early initiative on the sports side was to support Manchester’s bid in 1993 to host the 2000 Olympic Games. The city came a creditable third, beaten by Sydney and Beijing in the final vote. Some of us still have the enamel pin badge backing that bid. Rather more of us, though, have the one that supported London’s bid for the 2012 Games a dozen years later, and nearly all of us are wearing the one that marks the fact that that bid was successful, and is now about to stretch and delight us all in ways never dreamt of twenty years ago.
Small and highly motivated
The very first Permanent Secretary at the DNH used to boast to his colleagues in other departments that his department drew strength from its size – that he was the only one of them who knew by name every single member of his staff. I rather doubt that the latter was ever true, to be honest, but the thought behind the thought: that a small, highly-motivated department could cover more ground – and do so more nimbly – than its larger competitors still holds good.
So many happy returns to the DCMS. Here’s to the next twenty years.