Last week I thought I read that Tony Blair intended to appoint a 'new strong independent voice to speak for government', but I was mistaken. It was Chris Smith, not Tony Blair, and all he was going to do was shuffle the old pack of Tory Arts quangos, re-deal them crony-style, put a 'new strong independent voice to speak for architecture' in charge, and smother the lot in democratic safeguards.
At first sight this seemed a tremendous idea, playing to the one undeniable strength of British culture, its ability to carry more sub-committees and directorial, advisory and regulatory supercargo than any culture since the Ming Dynasty. But then I was not so sure. Thinking back, it seemed to me that there had been rather a run on new strong independent voices over the last couple of years, especially in the £120K Mayor of London bracket. Would Chris Smith really be able to find suitable candidates to rule the cronies? The obvious choice, Lord Rogers, looks as though he might not have another occupational window for several years. What about the steely glint of Bernard Hunt, then? Or Father Christmas himself, David Rock? Or someone of proven hair-trigger independence like Will Alsop? Or (why kid around) Clare Short? Architecture and Overseas Development has a globalising ring to it (and might solve a few other problems too).
When you think about it, a 'new strong independent voice' doesn't actually have to know much about the field it is speaking for. Not in practical terms, that is. Think of the recent incumbents at Royal Opera House, the Arts Council or the vacuous London 2000. Only a person sublimely ignorant of the ups and downs and hair's-breadth escapes of professional life, and supremely devoid of any specialised historical, theoretical or technical knowledge of its practice, would really be qualified to stand up and say that architecture - undifferentiated, general-purpose, ubiquitous, establishment- approved architecture - should give a lead, and that the difference between good and bad architecture is what makes the difference between cultural success and failure.
Once this caveat in the job description becomes clear, the field of candidates widens enormously. One finds oneself thinking of Cilla Black, or Anne Diamond. Maybe even George Michael. And what about those two mi5 men hiding in France? They seem credulous. Or Jerry Springer, tremendously good at advocacy work with warring tribes, but a bit unruly. Then, finally, you realise that none of this is any good.
The plain truth is that the idea of selecting (and appointing) a new strong independent voice is a popular political fantasy. People with new things to say, strong opinions (strong in argument that is), and who are also truly independent - such people appoint themselves and steer clear of talking shops like the plague. Unless I am very much mistaken, all that will emerge from this new deal of the quango cards is another network of committees covering the country, a secret list of preferred names, and a lot of dissatisfied architects who are not on it.