Can the Tories paint it blue?

9 June 2009

Robert Costa speaks to the Shadow Arts Minister Ed Vaizey

Strolling through the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge with Ed Vaizey took longer than expected. Vaizey, the Conservative Party’s Shadow Arts Minister, and I were browsing the museum’s extensive collections with the help of David Scrase, one of the Fitzwilliam’s directors. Mr Scrase, with his floppy grey hair and sleek black scarf, was keen to show us the entire museum before Vaizey sat with The Cambridge Student (TCS) for an exclusive interview.

Quickly, Scrase moved us from Domenico Veneziano’s The Annunciation to the mummy collection, down to a display of rare Korean vases then up to coins from the era of the theologian Erasmus, a Queens’ man like Vaizey’s father, the late economist Lord Vaizey. As Scrase stopped and paused to whisper the back-story of a certain flower drawing or Leonardo Da Vinci sketch, Vaizey would lean in, hands deep in his suit pockets, eyebrows slightly narrowed. Ah, surely this was just a politician feigning interest. Vaizey, 40 years old with the compact build of a rugby player, couldn’t possibly be interested in the nuances of colour and composition, could he? Yet as Scrase and I would move on to another piece, Vaizey would lag behind for a few moments, appreciating various paintings and artefacts alone.

When we reached the modern art collection, Vaizey, who also serves as MP for Wantage and Didcot, was visibly moved. We stared at the glorious pop and minimalist art dotting the walls, from Camels by Larry Rivers to John Hoyland’s 29.3.69 and its two large blood red panels which Vaizey found particularly appealing. He told me that he was “much more kind of in-tune with contemporary art than I am to more traditional forms of art.” I wondered how a Tory could love a wall-length explosion of the colour red. Then I peered closer and saw a strip of light blue in the centre of Hoyland’s piece. Fair enough.

Vaizey’s art bona fides seem to be more than political act. His mother, Marina Vaizey, remains one of Britain’s best-known art critics and has obviously taught her son well. “She was the art critic of The Sunday Times so I grew up going to art galleries with her and grew up around artists, so it kind of wove the arts into my DNA,” recalled Vaizey. “I think it helped me understand the language of the arts world. It’s very easy for me to slip into this world, understand who’s important and makes waves—it’s a bit like being able to speak the language, not fluently, but I’m comfortable.”

Vaizey may appreciate the Arts, but do his fellow Tories share the sentiment? “I think the Tories have an unfair image of not being kind to the Arts,” said Vaizey. “Most critics of the Conservatives assume the Conservatives don’t take the Arts seriously,” he said. Is that the general assumption of most Britons? “I think it’s a general assumption among the commentariat,” Vaizey retorted.

“In fact, if you look back at the last Conservative government, which set up the National Lottery which put a lot of money into the Arts, we have been good to the Arts . . . I think the Major government is unfairly tarnished because John Major took the Arts very seriously and began the renaissance of the Arts by creating the National Lottery.”

He then listed restoring the National Lottery “to what it was meant to be—something that funds the Arts, heritage, sport, and charity” as potentially “the major change for the Arts” in a future Tory government.

Vaizey added that if the Tories win the next general election, expected to be called in spring 2010, they would “look to cut down a lot of the kind of bureaucracy that dominates in the Arts at the moment,” he said. “The government sees the Arts as a way of seeing through social policies rather than art for art’s sake and I think that will change under the Tories.”

Philanthropy is another area of the Arts where Vaizey sees the opportunity for change. “We want to make it easier for people to give to the Arts,” he said. Nonetheless, it remains unclear how central the Arts will be to the Tories’ general election campaign next year. “To a certain extent, it’s up to the Media to how big the Arts feature,” said Vaizey. “David Cameron takes the Arts very seriously. He has put me and Jeremy Hunt (Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport) in to shadow the Arts and we’ve spent a lot of time talking to people from the arts. But sadly, the Arts don’t get a huge amount of coverage in terms of national policy discussion.”

Vaizey continued: “I think that the arts world will find that there is a group of people from the opposition talking to them in the run-up to the election and discussing with them the kinds of policies they want. So in that sense, the conversation might take place slightly below the radar in terms of national media coverage but I think will feature prominently for those people who take an interest in arts policy.”

For many Cambridge students, arts policy is probably also below the radar. So beyond the platitudes on arts funding and such, I asked Vaizey to tell me what Cameron and his close-knit circle of clever and well-educated Tory friends in Parliament, often dubbed ‘Cameroons’ or the ‘Notting Hill set’, thought of my favourite aspect of the Arts—rock and pop music.

“Well, we’re all late thirties, early forties and…” said Vaizey before catching himself from continuing sans preface. “I think it’s always dangerous when politicians start to show off or try and look cool by saying what art or music they listen to,” said Vaizey, wary of “being taken out of context.” I prodded for Cameron’s iPod playlist. “I think David’s musical taste is well-known with bands like The Smiths and Radiohead,” he said.

What about Vaizey’s iPod? “Well, I grew up in the Eighties so my musical tastes were formed in the Eighties in terms of modern music. The Jam was probably my favourite band.”

“I’ve become slightly notorious because I freely confess that I was a young Tory who was a great supporter of very left-wing bands,” continued Vaizey. “People like The Redskins, you may not have heard of them,” he added. Maybe it was my tweed jacket or American accent. Go on, I nodded. “Obviously, The Specials and The English Beat. I try to keep my musical taste up to date. I can just about manage Coldplay and The Killers. And obviously, since doing this job, I’ve gotten to appreciate Classical music much more.”

Vaizey is also an avowed lover of film. “I don’t think people talk enough about how film is a kind of unifier across all different generations because people aged 60 and aged 20 can go see the latest blockbuster,” he mused. Britain’s video gaming industry is another area Vaizey would like to see continue to grow and prosper in coming years.

If the Tories win the next general election, Vaizey confirmed that voters can expect him to bring his current shadow brief to a new government. “I think people are surprised how engaged Jeremy Hunt and myself are. We’re not there as a staging post in our political careers, marking time. We’re actually there because we support the arts and want to make a difference.” Come May 2010, if Morrissey aficionado Cameron wins the keys to Downing Street, Britain may just have a modern art fan who likes The Jam leading arts policy in Westminster.