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The abject failure of Cool Britannia The death of the Millennium Dome was long overdue

Thatcher's greatest achievement (Jeff Overs/BBC News via Getty Images)

Thatcher's greatest achievement (Jeff Overs/BBC News via Getty Images)


February 24, 2022   6 mins

Storm Eunice tore the Millennium Dome’s PTFE-coated fibreglass roof to shreds over the weekend. In the footage that circulated on social media, the steel struts that make up the underlying structure lie unnervingly exposed, like a whale carcass on the ocean floor.

Its innards are amusement infrastructure, geared to big-ticket events: Simply Red, Beyoncé, Strictly Come Dancing Live. But before this incarnation, it was a key battleground in a culture war that first took shape during the Second World War, erupted into factional conflict during the Thatcher years, and has since devolved into scattered, bitter insurgency: the contest over the proper relationship between artists and the state.

The Dome’s tattered corpse is a fitting symbol for a Britain scrabbling for public meaning, amid the wreckage of the cultural settlement that succeeded the last Gilded Age — a settlement now well and truly defunct. But two days after Storm Eunice flayed it came the news of a different structure, yet to be born: the first stately home to be built in England for over a century.

Taken together, the Dome’s death and this putative grand mansion tell the story both of Britain’s tragic experiment with artistic egalitarianism, and also of what came before and may yet succeed it.

In 1900, England’s richest 1% held some 75% of the country’s wealth. Among many other things, one effect of this disparity was that if you wanted money for the arts, you needed a rich patron. It was war that took the gilt off that age, in a grand conflagration of people and resources that decimated the old imperial aristocracy, even as it minted wealthy new wartime industrialists.

Two world wars also shredded the leisure — and a great deal of the wealth disparity — that shored up the old funding model for cultural life. Fearful for the nation’s artistic future, Britain’s wartime government founded CEMA, the Commission for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. Bureaucracies, once created, are tenacious. CEMA was re-founded in 1946 by Royal Charter as the Arts Council — the body that would, five decades on, direct much of the funding for the Millennium Dome fiasco.

John Maynard Keynes, CEMA’s first chair, described its remit as “to encourage the best British national arts, everywhere, and to do it as far as possible by supporting others rather than by setting up state-run enterprises”. But it never quite worked like that. The Arts Council’s first notable success was, in fact, illustrative not of this principle but of the opposite: not a return to independent efflorescence of cultural life, but a new kind of state patronage modelled on wartime collectivism.

The body was responsible for the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event intended to mark the centenary of Prince Albert’s 1851 Great Exhibition. Albert’s event was self-financing, and made a profit. In contrast, the Festival of Britain was funded by the government, and aimed to showcase all that was “modern, forward-looking and contemporary” in British culture and design, including the concrete South Bank Centre. A public unified by wartime collectivism and eager for a brighter and less bomb-filled future were enthusiastic. It’s estimated that of a then-population of 49 million, around half participated in the nationwide Festival in some way: the high point of a Keynesian social-democratic merger of state largesse and elite cultural progressivism.

Winston Churchill reportedly hated it, describing it as “three-dimensional socialist propaganda”. As soon as he decently could, following his re-election in 1951, he had the Festival’s aluminium Skylon monument demolished and turned into ashtrays: presaging the culture war that was to follow.

By the Seventies, public-sector progressivism and accompanying state largesse had percolated from elite socialist bureaucrats to a broad-based creative class funded by subsidy, increasingly radical in the wake of the hippie revolution, and determined to smash convention everywhere from (subsidised) dramaturgy for children to prostitution-themed exhibitions at the (subsidised) Institute of Contemporary Art. Under Thatcher, the Tories grew ever keener to cut this antagonistic arts counter-elite down to size.

In 1985, Norman Tebbit complained that this publicly-funded arts ecosystem was full of elitism and (more to the point, from a Tory perspective) Left-wing political bias. But the Thatcherite cure for this taxpayer-funded enemy within addressed less the enmity than the funding. Francis Maude argued in 1985 that the postwar state-subsidy model needed to be dismantled, and what creatives needed was a return to the prewar “patronage” model. As this kind of wealth now accrued less to super-rich individuals than to corporations, that meant corporate sponsorship.

Budgets were cut, and innovations introduced to forge stronger links with business, all turbo-charged by another Tory innovation: the National Lottery. But these innovations failed to defang the progressive arts blob. For the Lottery instantly created a colossal pot of money earmarked for “good causes”, a development which in turn sprouted new cadres of (generally also progressive) arts bureaucrats tasked with dispensing it.

Paradoxically, then, the Thatcher-era attack on government-funded elitism and political bias had the opposite of the intended effect. It didn’t rein in Left-leaning political bias in the arts, or hack the cultural elite down to size. All it did was reduce direct government control over the sector, while entrenching mutual hostility between arts administrators and the Tory Party and pushing anything that showed the faintest glimmer of popular appeal out into the private sector.

Tory arts policy thus achieved less a business-driven return to conservative values in the arts than a selective reorienting of artistic radicalism. This new cultural order leaned ever harder into convention-smashing, even as it dialled class politics back to vague murmurs about the wickedness of capitalism and slapped sponsors’ logos on the flyers. So by the time Blair inherited it, the Arts Council was the perfect vehicle for the public ethos associated with his reign: progressive ideals inflected by commercial funding, aesthetics and priorities.

The man whom Thatcher called her “greatest achievement” continued the anti-elitist push begun by Maude and Tebbit, telescoping all cultural policy — high and low — into a single Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The cheerfully demotic and venal output of the resulting “creative industries” was to be marketed worldwide as “Cool Britannia”. Purportedly a bloom of new British cultural self-confidence, this in practice consisted mainly of strip-mining Britain’s cultural heritage for a content-agnostic, pro-profit anti-elitism powered by corporate “patronage”.

It’s some distance from the Arts Council’s postwar remit, but this was far from just Blair’s fault. (He didn’t even come up with the idea to build a dome.) It simply reveals the too-great paradox at the heart of state-funded art.

How are egalitarian, taxpayer-funded government bodies tasked with responsible spending and staffed by progressives meant to preserve and nurture a cultural legacy from the age of aristocratic patronage? The Dome itself encapsulated, at a budget overrun of ÂŁ204m, the fruits of that paradox. “Body”, sponsored by Boots, Roche and L’OrĂ©al; “National Identity”, sponsored by Marks & Spencer; “Our Town Story”, sponsored by McDonald’s.

Tony Blair described the project as “Britain’s opportunity to greet the world with a celebration that is so bold, so beautiful, so inspiring that it embodies at once the spirit of confidence and adventure in Britain and the spirit of the future in the world.” And it did indeed capture the contradictory nature of budget-conscious, government-subsidised “creativity”.

Start with the sponsorship deal; work backwards to what the content should be; and always, always, choose convention-smashing or corporate vacuity over anything that smacks of aristocracy. No wonder the contradictory radical and conservative impulses of state art have driven the contemporary Arts Councils to a widely mocked statement of content-free inclusivity, which envisions a Britain where all have “access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences” even as it rebrands artists as “creative practitioners” and relativises “high-quality” and “cultural” to meaninglessness.

Storm Eunice hardly needed to flay the Dome’s sunken carcass; the bones of our erstwhile high culture have long since been picked clean. That old high culture, though, was largely the product not of government subsidy but what Aristotle called “magnificence”: “a fitting expenditure involving largeness of scale”.

For Aristotle, it was a matter of honour for the wealthy to spend huge sums to ensure something “most beautiful and most becoming” rather than according to “how much it can be produced and how it can be produced most cheaply”. And much as the twentieth-century egalitarian in me rebels at the thought, most of what we call “heritage” today is a product of such “magnificence”: the stately homes, the sculptures, the ornamentation, orchestral music and so on.

There are many indications today that as we leave the long twentieth century, the world is returning to Gilded Age levels of economic inequality. There are many downsides to this; but it also signals our return to the kind of world in which a super-rich caste exists who can afford to be patrons on a “magnificent” scale.

Taxing the mega-rich mostly encourages them to hide their wealth elsewhere. But encouraging them to spend magnificently creates not just jobs but also beauty, as well as things that endure — such as the grand mansions and monumental architecture that form our “heritage” today.

Perhaps, then, if we are unable to prevent the re-emergence of this plutocracy, the question isn’t how to cut these giants down to size. Rather, it’s how to reorient them from the mendacious and niggardly “man-of-the-people” minimalism exemplified by the likes of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, toward the kind of magnificence able to reverberate positively through the culture.

Consider the alternatives: that we either remain mired in the Millennium Dome model, in which public artworks serve largely as a conduit for woke capital or state propaganda; or else we simply abandon public culture, and the technologies which now stream personalised content to all our individual screens become the only things we share.

If we’re doomed to a new aristocracy, should we not at least demand that they are magnificent?


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Mary H continues to be a remarkable writer. I have almost zero interest in the history of funding for the arts in the UK, yet I read this article from start to finish, occasionally pausing to fully understand the argument or to follow a link. Next she’ll probably write a concise history of the sausage roll and I’ll happily read that too.
Her final couple of paragraphs left me wondering, though:
“…or else we simply abandon public culture, and the technologies which now stream personalised content to all our individual screens become the only things we share.
Aren’t we already past the cultural point of no return? I’m not sure we actively abandoned “public culture” in the west, it seems to have been taken from us by “slow degree”, bit by bit as we moved from any sense of civic duty or, dare I say it, religion toward our current status as isolated consumers. The woke invasion seems to be the last stage in that process whereby we’re told there is no culture, values or even facts. We all get to make it up to suit ourselves.
So no matter what model a country adopts to fund the arts, what “public culture” do the arts serve any more?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

As society gets more sick, there are calls for more arts funding to elevate it, but instead even sicker, yet more, art is produced, speeding up the decline into the abyss….

This is the trajectory Liberal/Leftism always takes.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I would say that everything the left touches turns to… I don’t think the hall monitors would let me finish that sentence. And maybe even this one goes too far for them.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

As so often, these off the cuff ‘clever’ remarks are wildly simplistic. Eisenstein. A remarkable film director by any standards. Of course, the Bolsheviks were appalling fanatics who set up a state of terror, but these two facts are not necessarily contradictory.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

‘Always takes’ – previous examples from history?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The necessary vitality of the arts to society has been sharply highlighted by the pandemic and the resultant lockdowns. Even among the crowds of Left-leaning, woke-sympathising arts aficionados and practitioners, the “soul” of the people that “the arts” enhances was drummed up in advertising and in countless radio interviews – to the effect and the extent that “getting bums back on seats” and “giving the people a good night out again”, to me, was a sign that no matter one’s political outlook or reputation, the movers and shakers just wanted to get back to the spirit of things, as it has often been for decades, when people cheered on a work or piece that aimed to cheer or challenge in an entertaining way.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

The grim slate of this year’s Oscar nominees shows what happened to the cinematic arts under the iron control of the left. These art house box office flops will be feted at an awards show watched by a viewing audience just a fraction of what it once was. The various quotas imposed by the much harder left now riding high will insure movies will get even worse.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You might be, though, overburdened by links when it comes to sausages.

David Zetland
David Zetland
2 years ago

Lol!

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago

Never. No such thing as “too many sausages”!

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Morrisons now make a foot-long sausage roll – and perhaps that’s the most concise history needed on the subject?

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I agree with you about the quality of Mary Harrington’s writing. But I don’t think the failure of the arts is primarily a funding problem. Where are the people with anything relevant to say or show? Perhaps our problem is that we no longer have anytime worthwhile to say about ourselves.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

For me the main issue of subsidised arts is the same as state-subsidised anything – it enables worthless product to be continue to be churned out, and turns people like Nicholas Serota into arbiters of what is and is not good. In that sense, the Arts Council, the Tate Modern etc are all just bizarrely-surviving latter-day instances of the British Leyland model, where taxpayers funded the production of bad cars. What is especially pernicious is the revolving door between gallery officialdom, being an artist’s agent, and owning a private art gallery.
It’s not solely the fault of the public sector: Charles Saatchi’s extremely poor taste has been highly influential in persuading people that garbage is actually art. If rich patrons want to subsidise the creation of junk to flog to other rich people, that’s fine, but the public sector shouldn’t be getting involved with other people’s money.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The ‘Art World’ is one of the most corrupt on the planet. Just look at the careers of the late Joseph Duveen ( of that ilk ) and Bernard Berenson. Two of the vilest art swindlers on record.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport should be cut down to size, viz. a single civil servant working from home on a three-day week. Her sole remit would be to tell supplicants, ‘No, you can’t have any money, go away.’

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

I’d take that job in a heartbeat, and I happen to be one of those “creative practitioners”.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

When I am prime minister, Allison, the job’s yours.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

The decline of the Roman Empire was associated with the end of the elite funding public projects in their own cities out of their own pockets. The construction of theatres, bathhouses and fountains ended. Elites retreated from their responsibilities as town leaders (decurions) to their stately homes in the countryside. The end of urban Romanitas in the west followed swiftly after.

We are experiencing our own equivalent to this process. Elites turn inwards, away from their neighbours. They bury their heads in the sand even as the threads that hold civilisation together unravel. Euergetism is replaced by mere charity, then nothing. Feudalism rises from the ashes.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Yet the Eastern Empire survived. Why?

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

There are entire works on that subject. It mostly comes from the strategic position of Constantinople and the east being wealthier and more urban.

Melanie Mabey
Melanie Mabey
2 years ago

They simplified their society – basically went Feudal voluntarily and thus preserved their culture (Jospeh Tainter Collapse of Complex societies)

Peter Hall
Peter Hall
2 years ago

Britain’s greatest contribution to 20th century culture was pop and rock music which received zero public subsidy and only mild encouragement (niggardly MBEs for the Beatles). That is the best path – no public money for the arts, a culling of the parasites and let’s see what our people come up with to satisfy the market.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

The Millenium Dome hasn’t existed for 20 years, it is now the O2 Arena. Furthermore it is not a tattered corpse, it has suffered some damage to its external decorative skin which will be easily repared.But it has always been the subject of myths. It was given an absurd funding and investment structure with loans being required to be paid back in the first year of operation. This was set up to fail and fail duly did. However at 16 million visitors it was by far the biggest visitor attraction in the Country and most people who visited it enjoyed it and, like the Festival of Britain, would have liked it to carry on.
But the Festival of Britain site was allowed to remain underused for decades and the Arena did until O2 bought it for a song (I imaging in a few years West Ham FC will acquire the Olympic Stadium in the same way). Anyone who knew the Greenwich Penisular before the Dome and now would be dense to imaging that the public outlay has not brought public benifits.
There is, of course, a well-known English philistinism about the arts; Orwell noted it and it is reflected by the scorn placed on courses like Media Studies. However the British have changed rather. There has never been a time when visiting museums and galleries has been more popular, the quality of classical chamber and orchestral music is incomparably better than I can recall in the 60s and 70s and we probably write the best operas in Europe.
But do carp away

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

And now we have the ‘Arts Society’ , formerly NAFFAS. What a pearl of civilisation.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

So what is the truth? anybody!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

This obsession with the mega-rich, very rich or just rich is amusing. Our system created them so get over it.

Taxes were created by nations. The mega-rich avoid these taxes. The very rich are all around us – people like Cristiano Ronaldo – and we have created them by falling for their marketing techniques. Until recently, the members of AC/DC and Kylie Minogue were the highest paid people in Australia – from old royalties. Recently, Bruce Springsteen sold all of his royalties for $500 million.

At a modest level, I own my own house. People in council flats would tell me that I was rich – rich here is defined as ‘more money than they have’. I read letters in newspapers every day about overpaid footballers but, strangely, never about overpaid pop stars.

Get over it!!! A bit of jealousy is good for the soul. This is our system and if it is wrong that we have created this difference in levels then …. the dreaded Left must be the way to go.

As an aside, a couple of years ago I was standing in a line in Smiths, waiting to pay. A young woman was in front of me and she had three very busy kids. They were dressed OK but not very well. She spent the time in the line digging in here bag and purse, finding odd coins, and when she came to pay she handed over all of the coins and notes in a heap and asked for ÂŁ29 worth of scratch cards.

This knocked me over for quite a while. Whatever learned people say about world politics, our system has created this scene. Writers of ‘the Left’ want to talk about taxing the fat cats, which translates as taxing the middle classes. You can’t fail to see why this imagery works. But the Capitalist world seems stagnant and lacking in ideas. The fascist Left or Right could be the only way forward.

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Indeed. If there were some great levelling event where wealth was evenly spread, stately homes converted into social housing flats and only state pensions allowed, then I predict that within a few years the wide boys and strivers would end up with more of the goods and services available than everybody else – using the opportunities of the black economy.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Golly Gosh, is life that desperate in idyllic Ceredigion?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Bad geography but reasonable comment. Yes.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Don’t worry we’ll win, we always do!

Silvia Le Marchant
Silvia Le Marchant
2 years ago

As always, Mary Harrington writes a brilliant article. Always grounded in knowledge, free of political bias and unafraid to look at reality, whilst pointing at a hopeful solution. Thank you

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

But they don’t ‘tell the story’ anymore than Cliveden, of which it is a tasteless copy, did of Profumo. Culture vultures and ‘commentator laptoperati’ types live by rooting around for cultural acorns. 98% of the population don’t give a damn, like the ‘shocking’ number reported in the press who’d never heard of the term ‘woke’. Shriek! How dare they. Ok I’m on here but then I’m a retired old git. In my working 12 hr days and bringing up kids this wouldn’t have pinged anywhere on my radar. Inside for the day in Singapore in a tropical thunderstorm it passes the time. Otherwise electronic chip paper really.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

the wonderful number of people who have never heard of the word “woke” is the best news I have heard. The correct definition of woke after all is “this person is making moral comments which are making me feel uncomfortable and to question things so I will give them a silly name to make me feel better” I am glad to hear that the “embitterati” is no-where near as big as “Unherd” might make one think.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

The funding of “magnificence” by the uber-rich is still happening, it has simply moved from the funding of the arts and stately buildings to funding science and technology
 space flight, hyper loop, electric vehicles, etc.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

It was not just peverse, in extremis, that Bliar went fot The House of Lords, Foxhunting, and The Jockey Club ( the latter who had their power to run racing literally confiscated, when every other country has its racing still run by Jockey Clubs modelled on ours) it was pitiful that he was so meekly allowed to get away with it: the Fleet Street ” never published” story at the time was that Blair’s father confessed on his death bed that he was not actually his father, and that his real father was a Northern aristocrat, with whom Bliars mother had had an affair…. hence his hatred of the old upper class…

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

there could of course be a good reason why this story is “never published”

T Doyle
T Doyle
2 years ago

Stop public funding of the arts.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

Now, if storm could take down that London Eye … It makes the Houses of Parliament look small and ridiculous. But, that’s just me. I am sure some folks love it.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago

There is a very simple solution to this all. Art must become even more elitist and the elites should entirely fund it. When the sell their capital gains are taxed and when they die death duties will be levied. The common man can get his decoration from IKEA and live in a pleasant home, whereas the elite can decorate their walls with Jackon Pollocks. Biscussion closed.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francisco Menezes
Campbell P
Campbell P
1 year ago

Wherever I travelled abroad during the Blair era the people of those countries bemoaned the advent of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the loss of the culture, traditions, etc for which they respected Great Britain. It was often of course very evident – or, rather, in your face – in the embassies. Golly, it was embarrassing to be British when he was PM, and that’s not even mentioning his self-seeking (for his future after his premiership) tame lapdog snuggling up to Bush at the cost of so many lives. Small wonder there was such a huge petition against his knighthood!