Lord Chris Smith: "Cynicism is the enemy of progress"

Culture Secretary in the Blair government, member of the House of Lords, and Chair of the Art Fund, the career of Lord Chris Smith paints an interesting picture. Now in his second year as Master of Pembroke College, he talks about his student days, political career, and hopes for the future.

Photo by Tasha May

If it had existed in the Cambridge of the 1970s, Lord Chris Smith undoubtedly would have made the BNOC Top Ten list. Succeeding Ariana Huffington (founder of The Huffington Post) as president of the Cambridge Union Society in Michaelmas 1972, Smith moved among the circles of those set to become prominent figures in British public life. Was it was a golden age of Cantabs? Jeremy Paxman was the editor of Varsity and Charles Clarke (Home Secretary 2004-6) was president of the Students’ Union. Lord Smith tells us all of this with the ever-so-slight raising of an eyebrow.

“There were big figures around and the newspapers were always poking fun at the Union, and a bit at the Students’ Union. But it was all taken in good heart, and it will ever be thus.” I ask him if student rivalries aren’t simply self-indulgent. “Probably, yes. But what’s student life for if it’s not from time to time a bit self-indulgent?”

Sitting in the Master’s office, in the company of the man himself, I am conscious of the subtle yet profound impact this man has had on the country. As Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport in the New Labour government from 1997-2001, Smith secured free entry to all national museums and galleries for the public. His 1998 book Creative Britain may have been met with a mixed reception, but he went on to assume a number of prominent roles in the creative sector, including chair of the Donmar Warehouse theatre, board member of the National Theatre and is now chair of The Art Fund.

I ask him how a public with such a stingy mentality towards government spending can be reconciled with the idea that supporting the arts is important. “Supporting the arts and artistic activity is worth doing at any time, whether it’s a period of austerity or a period of plenty. The arts are enormously important for all of our lives: they tell us our stories, they explain our lives, they challenge us, they show us joy and sorrow, they take us to places that we couldn’t imagine going to otherwise.” The seasoned politician begins to emerge as he continues, “We need the support of private individuals. We always have, we always will. The need now is probably greater than it has been for many years.” I briefly touch upon the theme of the May Ball as ‘Biennalle’ but get only a wry smile in response.

We move on to discussing the politics of hope. “We are now living through a period of real despair. The combination of Brexit on this side of the Atlantic - coupled, I would add, with the implosion of the Labour party - and the ascent of Trump on the other side. All the forebodings we have about what may happen in Europe, in Holland, in France and in Germany over the course of the next year… This is not a time of great hope, it’s a time of real despair.” For a Labour man of the Blair years, this view is understandable.

He describes the atmosphere after the 1997 election. “I can remember being in the car that took me into Buckingham Palace for the ceremony of appointment as a cabinet minister. There were crowds at the gates of the palace, cheering as all the new ministers went in to kiss hands with the Queen. There was a real sense of excitement, and for days people on the Underground were sort of involuntarily smiling at each other.” It seems a far cry from the world today, almost twenty years later.

“Now of course none of that will ever last and the business of government is always to find the best way of accommodating ideals to reality. I think it was Mario Cuomo who once said "We campaign in poetry, we govern in prose.” And the government is always going to be less exciting, less fervent, less happy making than campaigning and winning.” Nevertheless, Smith mentions with pride some of the achievements of the New Labour government. The Good Friday Agreement and the National Minimum Wage Act both in 1998, a number of policies marking progress in LGBT equality, and of course his own department’s achievement of making all national museums and galleries free.

View from the Tate Modern by Charlotte Araya Moreland

View from the Tate Modern by Charlotte Araya Moreland

Times are different now. He acknowledges this, saying, “I fear we are now in a real down-time politically, and in terms of public mood.” I put it to him that my generation, the children of the New Labour government, have never really known the hope for the future that Smith describes. As young people, we may not suffer from disillusionment, but many of us are turning cynical. After a pause, Smith says, “Cynicism is the enemy of progress. I was very lucky in that I was a teenager in the 1960s and it was a time when everything seemed to be changing. There was a huge amount of hope and a fundamental optimism about what could be achieved politically.

“I think we rediscovered a little bit of that optimism here in the UK in 1997. I think we rediscovered it a bit in America with the election of Obama in 2008. Now it’s gone into reverse. Cynicism means that you will never achieve anything radical, anything progressive, anything that moves things in the right direction and I would plead with you to avoid cynicism as much as you possibly can.

“However hard times seem to be, however daft and evil Trump may seem to be, however awful the consequences of Brexit may be, however rampant the hatred, xenophobia, and racism across the world seems to be… It is only by standing up against that and saying, ‘there is something different and we can make a stand,’ that we will actually begin to roll it back.”

We return to Smith’s days as a student. He attributes great value to his time at Pembroke in the seventies, and is clearly aware of the privilege of his position now. “It’s one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever done. That’s because I’m surrounded by highly intelligent people - and by young people who are at the outset of their lives.” I ask him how he would like to be remembered when people look up at his portrait hanging in the Hall. He chuckles, and says “I hope people would say that I was someone who brought the college together as a community, and even more than it ever was in the past.”

Charlotte Araya Moreland is a first year History student, and Editor of Pembroke Street