The footie enthusiast and secretary of state for the DCMS talks to Ben Duckworth about his luck in getting all the good jobs, ensuring cultural activity is available to all and painting with his daughters.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is located north of Whitehall sandwiched between a texmex restaurant and touristthronged Trafalgar Square. It doesn't feel like a normal part of the government.
Andy Burnham has led the DCMS since the end of January 2008 and appears very comfortable in the role. In fact, it's striking how often he refers to the way theDCMS is different to the rest of Whitehall.
"This department is unlike other departments that I've been in; Home Office or Department of Health," he says. "Ministers sit there and pull levers and people do things down below and that's how it works. Whereas here we're talking about independent, autonomous voluntary sectors of society that aren't told what to do by governments. Sport runs itself independently and autonomously. Lots of the cultural world, classically, are anti-establishment and anti-being told what to do. And quite rightly so."
And this vision of DCMS as being a semidetached arm of government seems particularly influenced by Burnham's period as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, currently Yvette Cooper's position, prior to his move to the DCMS. Burnham says: "Down at the Treasury I was involved in the Comprehensive Spending Review which, in terms of giving you a perspective of all of Whitehall was an incredible privilege. I've been quite lucky with my ministerial career, I've very much done jobs that got with my own kind of interests and passions."
‘Lucky' Burnham could well be the focus of envious looks from colleagues within the government at present. Culture, media and sport is often viewed as a perk. It allows for the opportunity to attend events from international football matches to exhibition openings. But if, as Burnham says, his leadership of the DCMS involves "passion", what is his vision for a department that spans a huge area of British life? In his answer, Burnham reveals he sees DCMS as being able to instigate change far more than other Whitehall departments.
"It's the best things in life isn't it?" He continues: "It's the things that people respond to, that people are passionate about. And that's why they're so powerful. They're probably more powerful as agents of policy than normally they get given credit for in a normal routine Whitehall sense because they deal in people's passions and aspirations and deeply held interests. They have that ability to take people out of themselves, to do things they wouldn't otherwise do."
Later in the interview he adds that his aim is: "To open up sports and art to as many people as possible. That's certainly the Labour ethos."
Burnham is known for being an approachable Cabinet minister, he is without airs and graces and "doesn't throw things around" according to people within the DCMS. Instead, one characteristic that he does possess is determination. This is combined with the belief that he has the ability to raise people up and improve their lives. And this is clear in the latest roll out of free swimming lessons, offered to both under 16s and over 60s by most councils in England. This policy doesn't sound like much and Burnham admits it's "not the be -all and end- all" in terms of getting the notoriously sedentary British people fighting fit. But it does "mean a real lot" to Burnham and was only secured after he chased four other departments for money to help subsidise the scheme.
It's when Burnham discusses policies like these that it becomes obvious there is rather clear logic to how he operates in the DCMS. On swimming, he says: "Its simplicity is its strength. Policy can, at times, be too dense and too complicated. In many ways, successful policy just needs to proclaim what its about on the tin and really connect with people."
Is it perhaps a lesson for other departments? Especially since Burnham terms the coalition of areas of government who funded it "something of a first in Whitehall terms".
He continues: "So it is a simple policy, it's not a complicated policy but I would actually argue that it is one of the first big signs of shifting money, if you like, from traditional responsive services, the Health Service, that pick up the pieces when people are ill, and putting money front-end and getting people more active. I think it's quite a big breakthrough on that front."
Burnham is a good figure to lead fitness boosts. A keen amateur footballer, he looks younger than his thirty nine years and has obviously avoided eating too many art gallery canapés. Deemed by Sky News to be the most fanciable MP in Westminster on Valentine's Day, Burnham has an easy manner which may come from dealing with high-powered cultural and sporting figures one day and constituents in his working class constituency of Leigh the next. He's been an MP since 2001 (with a whopping majority of 17,000) after serving an apprenticeship at the DCMS as a special adviser to Chris Smith.
His previous time at DCMS meant his return felt natural. He says "I left thinking if I get back there's lots of things I'd like to do after learning what I did while I was here". But during a time of recession the activities of the DCMS are hardly front page news, so why does the work that Burnham is doing matter at this moment?
"Didn't January have one of the biggest box office takings ever?" He replies. "And London theatres had an incredible 2008, even over the Christmas period. That demonstrates in difficult times, people need the things that give them some entertainment and enjoyment. Sport can lift people, so can culture, so can art, film and music. All of the success we've had at the Oscars and the Brits, these do give the country an important lift when it's needed." It's all very well talking about the lead that the DCMS can take but actually expressing it in terms that members of the public will understand is a challenge as Burnham admits. Much of the DCMS work sounds abstract, involving the future of projects with plenty of vision and reports on how various related industries will develop. It's not always the easiest thing to explain to the man or woman on the street how broadband provision over the next decade will improve their lives.
Burnham says: "Some of what we deal with is once removed, like some of the technical stuff around broadcasting. But if digital switchover went wrong, I think I would know about it in my surgery. Some of the stuff that we do is what happens if it goes wrong then it might become very much a man on the street, woman in the pub issue."
He continues: "Some of the things that this department has done over the past couple of years, free entry to museums, galleries, hopefully free swimming, there's other things we could list. These are policies the public could recognise and I think are broadly positive about. We deal with people's passions in here and you always have to be careful dealing with this because people don't want government trampling in and running them but we've just got to get our interventions right, to be in the right places and to do it in the right way."
Conversely it can also mean involvinggovernment in areas that seem minor. After swimming, one additional issue on Burnham's agenda is illegal downloading on the internet. While swimming lessons might involve different departments, illegal downloads involves lots of interested parties including the 50 per cent of UK broadband users who download from illegal file-sharing websites.
Is it an impossible task to end the practise? Burnham says "maybe" but adds: "I recognise this cannot be government alone. It has to be the music industry but they're only first in the queue. There are other creative industries who will be in the same position in years to come. What we have done in the long term is almost forcing the pace of that debate because we have to find those solutions. And if we don't, so important are the creative industries that we would have to legislate to protect them. We can't just have a world where copyright is eroded and tossed to the wind."
Throughout the conversation, Burnham is full of suggestions of how the government may become increasingly involved in cultural activities, media and sport and have what he believes is a positive effect. There is no sense of Burnham taking a laissez-faire approach. He sees his sport policies having a positive benefit on the nation's health, he will use legislation if necessary to protect musician and filmmakers' rights and if the nation's theatres aren't getting enough young people through their doors, he will introduce a free ticket scheme for the under-26s.
While there certainly is no sense of inaction at the DCMS, could it be argued that there are important things to worry about right now, with British banks' reputations dropping every day, than a few leisure activities? Burnham says: "There are more important things that are on peoples' minds. Jobs, people's homes, businesses, these are clearly the most important things of the time. But it would be wrong to think we have no role in that agenda."
He is keen to point out the DCMS is not a lightweight department and that it does play a role in the British economy. Burnham explains: "On one level, we are an economic department. We look after the tourism industry, and licensing. These are two areas that are crucial obviously, in the current climate... Particularly with the Olympics and other things we've got going on, I would hope that tourism can be part of the tools that we have to lift the economy."
An area where Burnham resists being such a ‘change-setter' and admits being more of a ‘traditionalist' is when it comes to television. "What I think is interesting is just how much the public outcry is in favour of high standards on television and I would argue they are becoming more important, not less important, based on the pressures the TV and all media industries face from the online world." He believes "television still represents something important".
Burnham may predictably drink from an Everton mug, but football is a real passion of his. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool supporters died in a crush at Sheffield Wednesday's ground before and during an FA Cup semi-final game, and Burnham says "even now I don't think there's a sense of resolution of lots of the painful issues that came up through Hillsborough." About the anniversary, he says: "Maybe it's an opportunity to look at some of those issues that still feel unresolved and difficult."
Talking about football's position twenty years on, his big concern is the way money is used. "It has, at times, taken sport away from its roots. And the reason why people in their 30s like me are so passionate is because the game [football] was so connected then. It was so linked to who you are - your identity. That's what non-football people can never understand. It's about community identity - who you are - your collective experiences as a young person."
And it's not just football. "When money's at stake, and not national pride, that is the tail wagging the dog. Sport's got it wrong. In the next period, sport needs to get its relationship back into proper balance, money can support the development of the sport it can never take it over. It looked that way in football and cricket. It looked like money was coming first and the sport coming second. Football clubs in my mind are clubs first and businesses second. And sometimes they appear the other way around."
Burnham's interests may be well served by being at the DCMS but is there ambition for other ministries? DCMS is hardly the most high profile Cabinet position. Burnham claims it will be "a real wrench" to leave and says "there is much more to do". Perhaps, at this moment, it's not suprising that Burnham is enjoying himself away from the hub of Westminster.
What is your favourite breakfast cereal?Cereal? Oh, I should be answering quick fire... Special K I think. Not Red Berries, just plain old classic Special K.
Manchester United or Chelsea?Now that is a hard question for me, but it would be United if I had to choose.
Eastenders or Corrie?Corrie
When did you last paint?Paint? Like paint in the house? Or, paint as in a Lowry? Oh! With the girls, fairly recently, about two weeks ago.
What was it?Oh God, I can't remember now, it might have been a drawing of a football match for the kids to colour in or something.
Novel you have read most times?I think it might be London Fields by Martin Amis, great book.
Three cultural activities you take your kids to?We've been to see a lot of ballet with the girls. Obviously football, if it counts as a cultural activity. We go to almost everything. I've taken them to the theatre as well, Horrid Henry stage show was the last thing. We've taken the girls to see pretty serious ballet though, they like it.
Swimming badge you reached at school?Probably about 100 metres or something.
In an ideal world would you rather be in the cabinet room or playing in a football stadium?I would play football.
You favourite dish?Chicken Bhuna, which is what I make.
Rice or naan?
Which naan?Again, I'm a bit plain, like my Special K, no Peshwari or Keema for me thank you.