In the first of a series of conversations with sector leaders, Editor Amanda Parker sat down for lunch with former arts minister Ed Vaizey.
Because of the work I do around inclusion and diversity in the arts, I’m often asked about the tricky business of banter and how to crack jokes without causing offence. The general advice I give is ‘punch up, don’t punch down’: you can joke with the boss that they’re rubbish and you’d sack them, but the joke doesn’t work if your boss is joking about sacking you.
So as a self-appointed diversity champion for the sector it’s surprising that Ed Vaizey breaks the rules from the outset, taking the mickey out of me before our starter has arrived. Over the course of a boozy lunch in a ‘designer steak restaurant’ near London’s legal quarters (what could be more macho?) he teases, is gently mocking, yet always stays on the right side of offence – having the kindness and courtesy to hide his genuine hilarity at my stand-out cringe-making moment (more about that later). His ability to poke fun without even the slightest mis-step is a clue to not just his long service as an MP but also his success as one of the most popular arts ministers since the post was created.
Our lunch almost didn’t happen. Once December’s general election was announced, a brief email put our date into purdah wilderness, but then the MP for Wantage announced his retirement from government after sixteen years of serving his Oxfordshire constituents, and championing the creative and cultural industries since his earliest days in parliament.
Our meeting started cautiously and ended raucously. By the end of the meal I was the worse for wear as an alcohol lightweight. This allowed Vaizey to slip easily away from questions he didn’t fancy. But it also gave him the opportunity to slam both hands noisily on the table as he vented against the “breathtaking hypocrisy” and “f*ing boring” ideology of the left-leaning arts sector, and to succinctly share his views on former culture minister Jeremy Wright…
Vaizey arrives in jeans and casual fleece top – his demob-happy dress code echoed by his pre-order of a Negroni in advance of his slight delay. A career spent making very quick decisions and cracking the hell on with stuff was evident in his style of ordering – reappraising in seconds when our waitress suggested the kitchen couldn’t meet his first choice, darting quickly from sharp irritation to re-set charm mode.
He described leaving government as “like a divorce… but on very good terms with Boris – if you put Brexit in a box”. He listed his proudest moments in “the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had” as “making a difference: making the whole brief from arts to creative industries to tech more relevant, helping create a greater understanding of the economic importance of arts to economy”.
“I’m proud of hanging on for six years, securing funding for music education, introducing tax credits for film and animation, and the first white paper on culture in 50 years,” he said. On his decision to resign, he commented: “It’s been my life for 20 years. You can get stuff done as a backbencher but for me I’d done stuff as a minister…I thought, ‘do I want to spend the next 20 years as a back bencher holding out for the random chance of becoming arts minister?’ I thought I’ll cut my losses and leave”.
Why “random chance” when you’re popular amongst the sector? “Well when you see people like Jeremy Wright become Secretary of State for Culture you accept that it’s an appointment [that’s made] not on merit… it’s very frustrating when it’s the brief I want.”
He takes a slug of wine.
Lunch at Gaucho, Chancery Lane, London
Arte de Argento Chardonnay
Pace of life
Is he enjoying the different pace of life? “I work less hard now than I used to, that’s definitely true”. So enjoying the lie-ins? “I’m a middle-aged man so I wake up at 5 in the morning”. And there was me thinking it was only middle-aged women that 5am thing happened to.
But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that Vaizey provided me with my own ‘woke’ moment. In 2018 he added to his achievements the creation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Creative Diversity, which he describes ruefully as “being run by two white guys”. I wondered what his thoughts were on Madani Younis’ resignation from Southbank Centre – the most senior non-white leader in the sector until his exit in December.
“I like Madani a great deal I think he’s fantastic and I think his appointment was… taking the Southbank in a new direction and obviously symbolic…it’s very unfortunate and feels like a backward step. I don’t know the details but I spoke to Madani before he left and he was finding it…”. He pauses to rephrase: “… his ambition and the resources potentially to fulfill that ambition were not in step”. He echoed an opinion I’ve heard elsewhere: that it’s surprising that Southbank Centre couldn’t make it work by supporting Madani if there were any gaps in what they’d envisaged: “He set out a compelling vision for the Southbank…he was the Creative Director so you sign up to a vision of where Southbank Centre could be.”
Despite being a “big fan of Blair” Vaizey can demonstrate over 30 years of commitment to the Conservatives, campaigning for the party when Labour’s popularity was at its height: “At uni I was an [Oxford] Union hack and a member of the Conservative Association … I don’t know what I’d say to my kids if they wanted to spend all their time at university doing that. It certainly carries a stigma but I dunno, I think it’s a good thing: I use it as a badge of honour when I look at my contemporaries and I think 'you weren’t campaigning for the Tories when they were campaigning…’'
‘It’s f***ing easy to be left wing’
We’re some way into the wine by now, and he struggles to maintain his composure as I ineptly attempt to top up his glass not with the house white we have open but with a very expensive jeroboam of Champagne sitting on a shelf beside it. Ed covers his mouth while he chuckles. Luckily the subject of being right-wing in a left-wing sector distracts him: as an unwavering one-nation Tory, what has he made of the arts sector’s left-leaning sentiments and star players?
“I have found it frustrating because it’s boring, predictable: it’s exactly what you and I experienced in Oxford - artists selling to billionaires works of art worth millions saying they hate the rich. Boring. Part of the reason I’m a Tory is because weirdly I’m an iconoclast - I became a Tory because Thatcher questioned the status quo which at the time was a liberal left wing agenda, of the Left having power [through their relationship with the] trade unions. It’s f***ing easy to be left wing and say ‘its all shit’.
“I’ve always found the arts small ‘c’ conservative and used to say of my two briefs [art and tech], in the arts [it] never felt people were saying ‘things could be done differently’: even though it sounds banal, in tech you could change the way you hire a taxi.”
By now he’s banging the table and we move onto BP and the sector’s growing interrogation of ethical sponsorship.
“It’s so hypocritical it makes my blood boil: climate protesters getting there on the tube, powered by power stations powered by oil… the hypocrisy is breathtaking. But the challenge is also to BP. [Current] sponsorship models shine a light on a very corporate view: BP is reinventing itself in terms of renewable energy so why not go [to arts organisations] and say ‘we will set aside £5m and make your organisation carbon neutral. We will analyse the travel to work routes, suggest sustainable ways of sourcing of your food and in two years’ time you can say it’s all sustainable?’”
Vaizey describes his commitment to building inclusion as coming from a “road to Damascus” moment. “The APPG is about opening opportunities because a particular community controls access and subconsciously appoints people who are like them. The lack of diversity is shocking: it’s about going out and finding [diverse talent] but people can’t be arsed to find them”.
So if Ed had his time again what would he do differently? “Access – create genuine meaningful access to the arts. The arts is very traditional: I recently had a conversation with a curator from the Natural History Museum. I said ‘if I had my way, I’d turn this into luxury flats and build a purpose-built museum somewhere off a junction of the M25’. It’s great that it’s in the centre of London but it’s a massive Victorian building that costs a fortune to maintain - and the building dictates the experience. If you think about our [arts] collections and the UK’s diverse communities, there are parts of the country where our collections would have the most relevance [beyond these London venues]…
“Obviously this won’t happen but I was trying to provoke the thought that so much of what we do is what has always been done. No-one is going ‘how do I make this genuinely accessible?’ With a blank piece of paper [we could] but we don’t have a blank piece of paper - we have these buildings. Would I build Natural History Museum pods all across the UK? All of this is up for debate and no one is debating it.”
What will Ed do next? His resignation offers huge opportunities for him and potentially for the sector, with Vaizey joining Peter Mandelson, Tristram Hunt and a host of other former parliamentarians as well-connected champions.
Over the space of a lunch we’ve potentially knocked down the Natural History Museum and converted it into flats, moving the collection into pods across the UK: should Tristram Hunt be watching his back? “I don’t think I could run a museum, no… I think Tristram has blazed a path but he has the academic credibility that you still need to run a museum”.
“I’d like to run a big and significant organisation in a public facing role. [Whilst in government] I kept seeing jobs I would have loved to have applied for.” Like what? “NESTA, Ofcom …”
He may have left the Commons, but his ambition is far from retired. On being a passionate advocate for the sector outside Government, he says: “Weirdly I think it gives you more freedom. It may be possible for me to have a relationship with [the next] Secretary of State that’s helpful and advisory whereas if I was in Government [in another role, that person might say] ‘I don’t want to do too much with Ed Vaizey, he wants my job’.
Ed’s a clear fan of performance, citing The Lehman Trilogy and Barber Shop Chronicles as two shows among many he’s enjoyed in the last year.
But what about the film of his life? I invite him to pitch me the script. “Good god! Oh, well…” a pause, before offering playfully: “Always second best. It’s the story of my life – I didn’t become president of the Oxford Union, I got a 2.1 not a First”.
Did you work for a First though? “No. I got my marks back and I missed a First by one mark. And I didn’t get into the cabinet…” And how does the film end? Obviously it’s Hollywood, not arthouse, I say. He suggests, “Maybe in the last act you see a great triumph: I re-enter parliament, become Prime Minister and lead the country into glory over a ten year premiership!”
We drink to that, before Ed zips up his puffer jacket, lights up his vape, and heads off into the winter sunlight.
Ed Vaizey in a nutshell
Born: Edward Henry Butler Vaizey
Birthday: 5 June 1968
Secondary education: St Paul's School, London
University: History at Merton College, Oxford
Profession: Barrister, specialising in family law and child care
Member of Parliament for Wantage, May 2005 – November 2019
Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, November 2006 – May 2010
Minister of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, May 2010 – July 2016
Little known fact: He played a cameo role as an Oxfordshire MP in the 2012 film Tortoise in Love.