The government’s ‘anti-woke’ agenda and the future of the arm’s length principle — Ed Vaizey

In this event organised by the Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage, Ed Vaizey will draw on his experience of working with museums as a Conservative Minister of Culture.

In 2020 Oliver Dowden the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport issued new guidance to national museums and other arm’s length bodies on how to deal with ‘contested heritage’. The guidance has become known as ‘retain and explain’ and has been implemented through linking it to management agreements and future funding settlements and subsequently through a requirement that all incoming and reappointed trustees ‘individually and explicitly express their support’ for the new policy.

Ed Vaizey, drawing on his experience of working with national museums as a Conservative Minister of Culture (2010-2016), came out publicly to question the government’s approach:

“I’m very concerned by the direction of travel of the government’s ‘anti-woke’ agenda. It’s one thing to have a bit of fun to feed the tabloids, quite another to start issuing directions to arm’s length bodies. It is a serious breach of the arm’s length principle, an attack on their independence and scholarship, and hugely damaging to morale at a time when the sector is already on its knees. It will have damaging long-term consequences if what were once curatorial decisions are taken over by ministers.”

In this event we have invited Ed Vaizey to reflect on the last 18 months taking a particular focus on the implications for the arm’s length principle. Through an open Q&A we expect to address questions such as:

  • What might be needed to make the arms-length principle more robust?
  • Is the arms-length principle still viable as museums deal more actively with the legacies of colonialism through restitution and other projects of reconciliation?
  • In what circumstances might current work being done by museums become ‘too political’ to be arms-length?
  • Are other forms of democratic support – or democratic design – beyond the ‘arms-length’ principle needed to enable museums professionals to work independently and exercise professional judgement?
  • When/what types of issues in museum decision-making might need additional democratic legitimation and what means might be considered (for example working with source communities/public engagement/participatory approaches/deliberative assemblies)?


Ed Vaizey, Lord Vaizey of Didcot, served as Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative industries at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills between 2010–2016. Lord Vaizey now sits in the House of Lords and is a trustee for the National Youth Theatre, British Esports Association, London Music Masters and Oscars Book Prize. He is a regular broadcaster and runs a regular newsletter and podcast titled the The Vaizey View as well as a podcast in collaboration with Country and Town House titled Break Out Culture.

Booking information

This event will be held online.

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These events are part of Designing for Democratic Engagement, a collaboration between the Centre for Democratic Engagement and Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage.


Creative Commons ‘Black Lives Matter – The Museum of the Home, Hackney’ by Alan Denney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

One flash point in the government’s development of the ‘retain and explain’ position were the protests related to the Museum of the Home’s ultimate decision to retain the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye an English merchant who made part of his money from his investment in transatlantic slavery. This picture depicts one of the protests.

More information of the context of the Museum of the Home’s decision.