There’s a horror story about Nadine Dorries becoming culture secretary. In “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, a man is given a stuffed monkey’s paw and told it will grant three wishes — but he’s also warned never to use those wishes, because while the monkey’s paw is powerful, it’s also cursed. When the paw delivers your heart’s desire, it does so in such a horrific way that you will regret ever meddling with fate.
For years now, people in the arts have been wishing for the culture brief to go to someone who is actually interested in culture. In 2011, there was consternation at Jeremy Hunt getting the culture, media and sport portfolio. A PR man, of all people! How, wondered a Guardian writer, could he ever understand “the extraordinary way the arts affect individuals and communities”?
Maria Miller was called “a philistine peg in a cultural hole” by the Times. Her successor Karen Bradley was treated with suspicion over the fact that her literary passions extended to crime fiction and re-reading A Christmas Carol once a year. And then there was Matt Hancock, whose passion for the arts reached the ecstatic heights of quite liking “Galway Girl” by Ed Sheeran (in 2018, that was the most intimate thing any of us knew about Hancock, and what a blessed time it was).
In “The Monkey’s Paw”, the man wishes to pay off his mortgage: he gets the money, but it’s a pay-off from his son being fatally mangled in an industrial accident. His wife begs him to wish their son alive again: that happens too, but their son is no longer recognisably human when he returns to their home. He is merely, horribly “the thing outside”. There is one wish left: the thing disappears and the couple are left alone.
For the arts world, Nadine Dorries is the thing outside. Never before has there been a secretary of state with such a clear affinity for their brief. Dorries doesn’t just like books — she writes them, a whole string of historical novels. She doesn’t just watch TV — she’s been a primetime star. And she isn’t just a passive observer of the digital world (which also comes under her purview) — she was one of the first MPs to be active online, and started blogging in the noughties, around the time David Cameron was still making woeful “tweet”/“twat” puns.
Yes, the arts world got what it wanted, and it is terrifying. The blog? A liability, which led to her being accused of improperly claiming expenses for a second home: she was only let off when she convinced investigators that she had been misleading the public about where she spent most of her time. “My blog is 70% fiction and 30% fact,” she told the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and Privileges. “I rely heavily on poetic licence and frequently replace one place name/event/fact with another.”
The prime time appearance? That was on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2012, and it also got her into trouble in parliament. She had the whip temporarily suspended in punishment for going into the jungle without informing the Conservative Party first, and was later censured by the standards watchdog for failing to declare her fee. Her constituents, too, seemed very annoyed that she’d chosen to spend time eating bugs rather than scrutinising white papers. Still, she wasn’t there too long: she was the first contestant to be eliminated.
The novels, at least, have been successful. She’s written 15 of them, and declared £120,000 in royalties over the last 12 months alone. Unfortunately, I have read one, and it was terrible. The Four Streets (published in 2014) is set among Irish immigrants in 1950s Liverpool. It features a “haughty, stuck-up Protestant bitch” as the villainess, the ghostly apparition of a noble redhead who died in childbirth, and a noncing priest who brings the whole community together for a vigilante castration. Characters say very authentic things like: “That’ll be grand for the boxty bread.”
If you wanted someone who understands the arts, well, here you go. Nadine Dorries could hardly be better credentialed. When the BBC begs for sympathy about the problems of balanced public service and value for money, she can give them a cool, hard stare and ask what it’s even for when people are perfectly happy watching footage of moderately recognisable people gagging over ostrich anus? When publishers mourn the troubles of sustaining the midlist, Dorries can pack them off with the suggestion that they put out blockbusting stories of sectarianism and the supernatural instead.
From the perspective of media and the arts, the trouble with Dorries isn’t that she lacks an interest in culture: it’s that she’s too interested by half. She’s an opponent of the licence fee, and in 2019 tweeted that the BBC was “a biased leftwing organisation which is seriously failing in its political representation, from the top down.” Once Dorries gets stuck into her role, the public mauling the Right gave to the BBC’s new executive news editor Jess Brammar is probably going to look like playschool stuff.
She was also an early adopter of anti-wokeness. “Left wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech,” she wrote in a 2017 tweet. “Sadly, it must be true, history does repeat itself. It will be music next.” (Right-wing snowflakes, of course, just pitch a fit about Brammar not liking Brexit, and they are apparently absolutely fine.) Sport — another of her responsibilities — can count itself lucky that she doesn’t seem to have a single thing to say about it.
Did history repeat? Was it music next? How, exactly, does one dumb down a panto? By putting more Jim Davidson into it? Dorries’ statements are tangled and belligerent, and for many in the culture industries, they disqualify her for the job she now has. That, of course, is the wrong way of looking at it: the fact that people are mad about her appointment is all the qualification she needs.
Dorries is less Secretary of State for Culture, more Secretary of State for Culture Wars. There’s a fight out there to be picked against nervy liberal groupthink and the dominance of luxury beliefs within major institutions, and Dorries is eminently capable of picking it. The fact that her interventions demonstrate neither good faith nor nuance on the issue is not a disadvantage, it’s a boon: every time she wildly overstates her case, her opponents will wildly overstate theirs, and everyone will rush to their corners to renew their tribal loyalties ready for another round.
It’s this tendency that makes Dorries a worry for the arts, far more so than her terrible (yet popular!) fiction and her affinity with reality TV. Her parliamentary career does not suggest she will apply herself to her brief with great diligence or rigour, but she has an undoubted capacity to turn every minor dispute into a flame war. And the arts world will be unable to resist responding with passion, fury and polarisation. Because Dorries is the perfect bogeyman, an irresistibly perfect enemy: she’s exactly the thing they wished for.