Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and former Culture Secretary
June 2022 marks 50 years of Pride; what does Pride mean to you?
Pride means showing the world – and especially our families, neighbourhoods, work colleagues, and friends – that we are LGBT+ people, we’re perfectly normal, we’re making a great contribution to society, and we’re very proud of who and what we are.
You were the first male MP to come out as gay (in 1984). What was the greatest impact of that decision?
I received hundreds of letters from all around the country in the days following my speech (this was long before the age of social media). The ones that meant the most to me were the ones that said “thank you; what you’ve said has made it easier for me.” That reassurance and giving of confidence – and pride – was far and away the greatest impact.
LGBTQ rights have advanced hugely over 50 years – what still needs to change?
We still need to make real progress on trans rights. We need to ban conversion therapy not just for LG and B people but for trans and non-binary people too. We need to change the culture in schools to combat bullying. And there is still a huge job to be done to support LGBT+ activists around the world fighting to end unjust homophobic laws and practices, often in Commonwealth countries where these laws are a legacy of our colonial rule.
Russell T Davies’ TV evocation of the 1980s, It’s a Sin, left many in tears. What did you make of it?
In many ways it was all too real for me. It was precisely the time when I was finding gay relationships and discovering I was myself HIV positive. The fear, the trauma, the love, the shameful response of many in the wider world – all this came back to me. I was very moved.
You revealed in an interview to the Sunday Times in 2005 that you were HIV positive. Why did you go public?
Largely because Nelson Mandela had made a speech at his son’s funeral saying we should be open about HIV, we shouldn’t hide it. So I decided I’d “go public” about it, and I’m glad I did. The best thing that happened was that I walked into my office on the following morning and there was a note on the desk saying “Please ring Mr Mandela”. So I did. And there at the other end of the line was Nelson Mandela saying “thank you”. It sort of made it all worth it.
June also marks the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Are you a monarchist?
The Queen does a brilliant job, and I find it hard to think of who might do better if we were to start electing a president instead. So let’s stick with what works.
Do you watch The Crown? If so, what do you like best about it?
(I won’t answer this one, because I haven’t seen it!)
What’s your proudest legacy from your time as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the Blair Cabinet?
Making all the national museums and galleries free for everyone. These are the great storehouses of our history, our knowledge, our science, the things of beauty we have collected over the generations. There shouldn’t be any barrier of income that stops people being able to experience them.
If you could get one ticket to any cultural event this year, what
would it be?
I’ve already been. Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the LSO in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Barbican, three weeks ago. It was spine-tinglingly good.
You were Chair of the Environment Agency 2008-14. What issues does the UK need to focus on to protect our “green and pleasant land”.
Protection of the quality of our rivers from discharges and run-off from roads and fields. Flood protection that focuses more on flood meadows and slowing of the flow high upstream, rather than just on building concrete walls. Saving and planting trees, and not just conifers. Stopping the indiscriminate building of tracks across wild landscape. Real safeguarding of our National Parks and sites of special
Your PhD was on the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. What draws you to the Romantics?
Their understanding of the fundamental interrelationship of humankind with the natural world around us. And their vision of the way the human imagination can see beneath the surface of life to something far deeper and more real. They also of course wrote wonderful poetry.
You’ve spent decades in Westminster and now you’re Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Is it fair to say you like arcane rituals?
Tradition is important and valuable, but you mustn’t let it dominate.
What’s the best thing about being Master of a Cambridge College?
Being surrounded by young people at the outset of their lives.
Is free speech under threat on UK’s campuses, as is often claimed?
Certainly not where I am. There’s a real acknowledgment from students and academics alike that universities are places where all viewpoints should be aired and tested and challenged and debated, and that is the way that truth emerges.
What were your takeaways from the pandemic?
We need to be better prepared for the future. Never again should we abandon those living in care homes. Never again should we take for granted everyone who works in the essential roles that keep society going and keep us all alive. And we need to be prepared to adapt our own lives, as we did when many of us learned how to work from home.
What do you make of “partygate”?
A horrible revelation of how low the standards of our public life and public representatives have sunk.
Which politician do you most admire, and why?
John Smith. He was a dear friend, a passionate advocate for social justice, and would have been our greatest Prime Minister. I still feel his loss keenly.
Which politician do you least admire, and why?
It’s a toss-up between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I think I’d opt for Boris Johnson. Because Brexit has been the very worst political, economic, cultural and social decision this country has taken in my entire lifetime. And because he’s an incompetent and disingenuous charlatan.
What do you make of the current UK government?
The most disreputable and incompetent I’ve ever known.
If you could invite any five people to lunch, who would they be?
Barack and Michelle Obama; David Attenborough; Martina Navratilova; and Volodymyr Zelensky.
If you could add one dream role to your varied career, what would it be?
I’d love to have been Director of the National Gallery.
Lord Smith has been Master of Pembroke since 2015. He became MP for Islington South and Finsbury in 1983 and was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 1997-2001; he was also Chairman of the Millennium Commission and the Environment Agency. He now sits on the Lords crossbenches as an independent Peer
Q&A with Chris Smith
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