The appointment of George Osborne as chair of trustees at the British Museum is a startling jolt. The taint is so obvious, the associations so indelible: can it really have come to this? You do not have to recall the former chancellor’s austerity measures with horror to be dismayed; nor even his notorious cuts to the museum sector, pertinent as one certainly hopes they were during the selection process. Osborne was a career politician, after all. But the flagrant opportunism, the conspicuous needling, sneering and condescension made him unpopular even among members of his own party.
About the selection, questions have inevitably been raised. Where was the advertisement? Could anyone apply? Who chose him and what were his qualifications (as negligible, to critics, as for his recent role as Standard editor)? Surely he was another Tory placeman, like Jacob Rees-Mogg at the National Portrait Gallery, or Tory donor Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair?
But it isn’t so simple. Members of the British Museum’s impressively large board of up to 25 trustees are appointed by several methods. Three trustees have just been selected by a panel formed of the chair, an independent member and a senior civil servant at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; the ads were public and open to all. Others are recommended by the presidents of the Royal Academy and the Royal Society, inter alia. Number 10’s futile attempt to block Dame Mary Beard last year shows that not all appointments are in Tory control.
Seven trustees formed a search panel for the new chair. They were led by Baroness Shafik, Bank of England deputy governor when Osborne was chancellor. He has other friends at the museum’s Great Court, including Philipp Hildebrand, the vice-chair of BlackRock, which lately employed Osborne on a salary of £650,000, and the Conservative peer Lord Sassoon, ex-Treasury spokesman. The board is thick with financial super-insiders.
Yet I am told that the trustees voted unanimously for Osborne, including left-leaners such as Grayson Perry, Muriel Gray, Beard and the Jamaican-born playwright Pat Cumper. This unanimity is what signifies. Everyone on the board is abundantly aware of Osborne’s reputation; yet he is thought to be exactly what the British Museum needs now. So what can this pertinacious operator with the Nero hair offer the world’s oldest national museum? A marvellous ability with spreadsheets perhaps, given that his supposedly slimmed portfolio of jobs still adds up to nine, with advisory roles in venture capital, two professorships and a full-time role at Robey Warshaw, the boutique Mayfair bank. All useful for the VIP guest-list, of course, though hardly what the museum lacks.
Perhaps he can bring Russian money, given his past and present connections with the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and the Standard’s Evgeny Lebedev. Colleagues on that paper remember Osborne insisting on regular references to elephants to please Lebedev, patron of an elephant charity. Or what about further fossil fuel sponsorship, given Osborne’s massive tax breaks to the sector? You can protest against the museum’s notorious BP sponsorship all you like. But remember this: BP is one of Robey Warshaw’s biggest clients.
Apparently this presents no conflict of interests to the board of trustees; indeed, perhaps it appears the very opposite. What Osborne offers, most especially, is not just his ruthless dynamism but his proximity to power. He can call up money from his friends Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson when museum funds are scarce; he can appeal directly to fellow Cameroonian Oliver Dowden, DCMS secretary of state. And Dowden’s no-surrender policy of “remain and explain” coincides only too neatly with the museum’s resistance to returning ill-gotten artefacts.
Nigeria has requested the return of the Benin Bronzes, Greece the Parthenon Marbles; how easily one can imagine Osborne’s dancing defiance.
His appointment has alienated part of the museum’s fan base, inspiring a social-media culture war. But the public is as irrelevant to these matters of corporate and financial security as the objects in the museum itself.
Osborne says he has loved the BM all his life. So have I. It’s the barest minimum; anyone could say it. But unlike the board, we at least do not have to shake hands with a man who allegedly joked that he wouldn’t rest until he had Theresa May chopped up in his freezer. The trustees have to believe in Osborne, against the evidence of pretty much his whole career – trust that he will work only for the museum and not for the interests of his friends, or himself.