When the Museum of the Home in London’s Shoreditch wanted to remove the statue of the slave shipowner Sir Robert Geffrye that adorns the front of its building, the charity’s trustees received a strong warning from culture secretary Oliver Dowden.
“The government believes that it is always legitimate to examine and debate Britain’s history, but that removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach,” the minister wrote to the board last summer. “As a government-funded organisation, I would expect you to be mindful of the above approach.”
The museum trustees, who had expressed concerns about the Geffrye’s continued presence in a racially diverse area following the Black Lives Matter protests, reluctantly chose to keep the statue – and avoided any government threat to their funding.
The incident is yet another moment in the public rise of Dowden – a frequent foot soldier in the “culture wars”.
His profile has grown in parallel with Boris Johnson’s willingness to mobilise the government machine behind divisive topics that fill the day’s headlines and let ministers rail against “woke” policies – and draw a cultural dividing line with Labour.
In the 16 months since he was unexpectedly promoted to the Cabinet, Dowden has warned museums to “retain and explain” controversial statues, successfully argued the BBC should keep the lyrics from Land Of Hope And Glory at the Last Night of the Proms, and made the unprecedented decision to intervene in the selection for the England cricket team by expressing regret over the decision to drop Ollie Robinson over historic racist tweets.
He has also ordered the union flag to be flown on UK government buildings every day, blocked reappointments of government-appointed trustees to museum boards who were deemed to be hostile, and relaunched the entire hiring process for the chair of media regulator Ofcom after the government’s preferred candidate, the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, failed to make the cut.
Last year, Dowden even wrote to Netflix to ask the streaming company to put a warning at the start of episodes of The Crown stating that events in the drama may not be strictly historically accurate. The intervention was unusual because his predecessors had allowed the previous three series of the show to go on air without feeling the need to demand such a warning, but it received positive coverage in right-leaning outlets and elevated Dowden to the front pages.
“Ministers are understanding more and more what Johnson wants,” said Matthew D’Ancona, who has produced a podcast on Downing Street’s attitude to culture war issues. “He wants them to come out on broadcast and social media on these issues and not to hold back.”
The surprise is that it is “Olive” Dowden – as he is universally known in Westminster owing to an early-career typo – a Remain-supporting ex-David Cameron aide, who has become the face of this campaign. Many fellow Tory MPs speculate his ambition will be rewarded with a bigger job in a forthcoming reshuffle.
Part of Dowden’s power lies in his department’s financial patronage. Last summer Dowden secured £2bn in funding for the arts industry and helped negotiate schemes to help the film industry return to work, winning plaudits from a business that is normally hostile to the Tories. What the arts sector might not have realised at the time is that the government felt this is a two-way transaction.
“It’s odd to think that a culture secretary isn’t allowed to have a view on culture,” said an individual who works with Dowden, who emphasised that the minister still lived close to the part of suburban Hertfordshire where he grew up, arguing this means he is more in touch with the views of Conservative voters. “If you’re giving that much taxpayer’s money to the arts then we should be making sure those organisations represent people … This is about representing the views of the people who elected us.”
Dowden has not commented on the decision by a group of University of Oxford students to take down a picture of the Queen from their common room wall. But viewers could probably guess which side of the debate he stands on, based on his office decor. After he made a television appearance in front of a large portrait of the monarch, the Daily Express ran an article with the headline: “BBC Breakfast viewers baffled by Oliver Dowden’s picture of Queen.”