July 9, 2020

The Albert Hall is a monument to a worldview and model of civic life that’s been at death’s door for some time. Crowdfunded by a patriotic ruling class committed to public moral improvement and the advance of British imperial interests, it’s quintessentially High Victorian in its history, purpose and execution. And now it looks as though coronavirus may kill it off.

It’s commonplace today to talk disparagingly of ‘Victorian morality’ as uptight and needlessly repressive, and of our modern culture as an improvement. But less well-recognised than Victorian uptightness is the fact that it was a backlash against preceding excess.

In the period leading up to Victoria’s coronation in 1838, the monarchy was associated with sexual licence, showy extravagance and George III’s mental illness. With republicanism sweeping Europe and America, Victoria and her consort Prince Albert sought to avoid the fate of less adaptable royals by reimagining Britain’s monarchy as moral rather than political leaders.

A progressive by the standards of his day, Albert was a natural for the job. He supported contemporary campaigns for education reform and the elimination of slavery, and was a compulsive institution-builder and attender of committees: “a civil servant in a coronet”, as A.N. Wilson put it. He was also key to the 1851 Great Exhibition, which showcased everything the society of the day wished to celebrate — from the stolen treasures of colonialism to Britain’s first public loos.

A number of schemes were proposed to commemorate Albert after he died, including a meeting and concert venue. But the funds were swallowed up by the Albert Memorial. Not to be deterred, the civil servant and inventor Henry Cole, Albert’s chief collaborator in the Great Exhibition, crowdfunded it.

Cole did the rounds among the great and the good. He built up enough momentum to win approval from the Prince of Wales, steamrollered competing architectural designs and pooh-poohed arguments that the hall was, as Lord Derby said,”inconveniently large for the meetings of really scientific societies”. He managed to drive the project through a banking crisis, budget constraints and his own unpopularity to deliver the iconic Kensington venue that’s now about to go bankrupt.

Traces of the patriotic culture of public service, contribution and assembly survived, until last summer, in the Albert Hall itself, via the orgy of flag-waving that is the BBC Proms. But today, a Rule Britannia-singing devotion to British national identity is coded as low-status and backward. After the Brexit referendum, this shift found its way even into the Hall, via the very middle-class turf war over whether the Last Night of the Proms would be a sea of Union Jacks or EU blue-and-gold.

In terms of wealth, the modern equivalent of the Victorian great and good who funded the Albert Hall are hedge fund billionaires and tycoons of industry. Many of these individuals donate to philanthropic projects, and the £12m it cost in today’s money to build the Albert Hall is loose change to the modern mega-rich. But the prospect of such individuals chipping in for an improving public institution with patriotic overtones is slender.

Today’s public-spirited billionaires are more likely to be trying to vaccinate the whole world, while the less altruistic host private seminars on maintaining authority over their mercenaries once money is worthless, or build luxury bunkers in New Zealand.

Further down the elite food chain, the attenuation of national allegiance among transnational elites is typified by the recent appointment of the Remain campaign director and Lib Dem spin doctor Ryan Coetzee, in a £5m contract to whitewash China’s new puppet regime in Hong Kong.

Albert’s own great-great-great-great-grandsons, the Princes William and Harry, encapsulate something of this change. William clings to Albert’s vision for the monarchy, combining personal reserve and apparently picture-perfect family life with a commitment to national duty. His brother is fond of sharing his emotional state with the world, and seems keener to pursue a moral mission at the planetary rather than national scale, via his yet-to-be-launched ‘Archewell’ foundation. His recent pronouncements on the subject of the Commonwealth have mostly been confined to criticising its historic racism.

It’s hard to say whether elite disdain for the fading relics of the British imperial past is a cause or a consequence of Britain’s decline. It may just be a matter of rats leaving a sinking ship: after all, American elites were happy to salute the Stars and Stripes until that flag started to look threadbare. In contrast, China, today’s up-and-coming hegemon, has no qualms about self-aggrandising nationalism.

In any case, Britain in Albert’s day was an imperial behemoth commanding some 20% of global GDP. Today that’s a minnowish 2.2%. The mood of the day is more in tune with defacing monuments than building new ones.

It’s also possible that Britain’s High Victorian self-confidence was just a flash in the pan of British national pessimism. A thousand years ago, the inhabitants of these islands were already muttering gloomily about the passing of empires. In the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, the poem’s narrator muses about the fleeting nature of all human achievement, as he passes among ‘eald ente geweorc’ – the ancient work of giants.

The Anglo-Saxons built mostly in timber, and with the exception of a few churches none of their structures remains today. The ‘geweorc’ in the peom refers to the ruins left behind by the Romans when they left in 400AD. (One such ‘geweorc’, Hadrian’s Wall, is still standing a thousand years on from The Wanderer.) To the Anglo-Saxons, Roman mosaics, underfloor heating and multi-storey stone buildings must indeed have seemed the work of mysterious giants.

The public culture of 21st-century Britain is as incapable of producing a new Albert Hall as the builders of 10th-century Britain would be of constructing a hypocaust. This was demonstrated by the last serious effort to deliver something of its scale, ambition and identity-defining nature: the Millennium Dome.

Funded by the National Lottery, over budget by £204m (nearly twenty times the total construction cost of the Albert Hall), its exhibition was panned at the time and attracted barely the same visitor numbers as the Great Exhibition despite running for twice as long. Today the Dome lives on as what Lord Derby feared the Albert Hall would become: “a mere place of public amusements, of which monster concerts would be the least objectionable”.

This should surprise no one: by the late 1990s, British culture had already balkanised to the point where the idea of encapsulating our shared values in a unifying exhibition was quite simply unachievable. The leadership team tried to synthesise a common cultural vision, for an individualistic society feeding on the progressive destruction of just that vision. Of course they failed. We couldn’t agree on what we have in common, so what we got – a mixture of corporate-sponsored junk exhibits and vending opportunities in a big tent – was poetically apt.

This doesn’t mean we should pine for the British Empire. The High Victorian era produced as many horrors as it did impressive buildings and scientific advances. But we can surely admire the moral seriousness and mass civic-mindedness that was the best of Albert’s legacy, without shrugging our shoulders at (for example) the starvation of 5.5 million Indian people in the Great Famine of 1876-8. It ought to be possible to convene something like the shared cultural life that animated Victorian Britain, without being obliged to bundle that with sexual prudishness, child labour, or a burning desire to invade other continents, enslave their inhabitants and steal their mineral wealth.

Unfortunately, that’s not where we are. Britain is left with neither the imperial might of Albert’s era, nor its shared cultural life. Instead, we have the buildings the Victorians left behind, squatted by a ruling class that’s happy to trade Victorian treasures while remaining largely indifferent to or actively critical of Albert’s vision of public service and civic participation. An aristocracy more like Harry than William, concerned with only the individual and the largest canvas of all – the planet – but none of the scales in between, whether town, city or nation.

Another great Victorian work, Frankenstein, was inspired by Galvani’s 18th century experiments passing electricity through the legs of a dead frog, making them twitch even though the animal was lifeless. In the last few days, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced £1.57bn of funding for heritage and the arts, aimed at getting struggling institutions through the lockdown. We can expect the Albert Hall to receive some of that largesse, but this will no more revive mass-participation civil society than an electrical current can reanimate a dead frog.

For lockdown has accelerated a trend that was already well under way: the death by indifference of anything in civil society that isn’t either for private consumption or amenable to commercial exploitation. And our political leaders are now driving this trend to its conclusion: the more profitless (in a commercial sense) an activity, the more grudging the unlocking. Pubs, shops and building sites all have the green light; children’s playgrounds remain closed.

The only exception has been mass political protest. And this style of cultural and political activism is as polarised between the individual and the crowd, and just as incapable of building intermediate institutions, as the post-democratic elite whose voices are loudest in its support.

The remnants of the worldview, self-confidence and cultural tastes characteristic of Victorian-era bourgeois civil society have been on life support for a long time. Coronavirus was the coup de grace. But rather than using taxpayer money to try and reanimate the corpse, maybe we should learn from the Anglo-Saxons and take the long view. Instead of seeking to imitate the mysterious ‘eald ente’ of 400AD, they let the ruins be, and took a grim comfort in the fleeting nature of all things:

Alas for the bright cup|
Alas for the mailed warrior
Alas for the splendour of the prince
How that time has passed away
Dark under the cover of night
As if it had never been

Living as I do in what feels like the death throes of a civilisation, there’s comfort in knowing that the people who lived after Roman Britain had their own culture and history. Even as the traces of the Roman imperial past through which the Anglo-Saxons wandered crumble into today’s landscape, it’s worth recalling that the Anglo-Saxons themselves, in the end, also had a future.