The year of the spat

Ben Coren looks back at the various rows and spats that characterised the UK arts and culture scene

As 2008 looms, the arts media has been busying itself reviewing the cultural highs and lows of the past year.

Despite gloomy news of drastic cuts in arts funding and continued predictions of the death of the book, the general consensus is that 2007 has seen a lot of interesting work produced (although some of it, as our film critic Ryan Gilbey observes, has been hard to find).

But aside from praising or damning individual work, and without meaning to be unduly reductive, what were the trends that summed up 2007?

In the UK, celebrity meltdowns and popular environmentalism were both high on the agenda and we’ve also seen an above average number of spats tangentially linked to issues surrounding freedom of speech and the limits of acceptability.

The year kicked off with a ratings grabbing race row in Celebrity Big Brother (more of the same was to follow in the summer series) and since then new cultural brouhahas have been arriving very regularly. This week the BBC was criticised for editing the word ‘faggot’ out of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and in recent months we’ve had both Mozgate and the Amis/Eagleton controversy to keep us suitably outraged, whichever side we’re on.

Of course, the arts have always been an area where debates over what is permissible are played out and a good cultural/political ruckus certainly makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But an argument could be made that the prevalence of these kinds of stories in 2007 paint a picture of a country with a worryingly uncertain set of attitudes towards what can reasonably be said and what can’t.

Perhaps the spats at least brought such issues to wider attention, but did they generate more heat than light? In the case of several of the controversies most of the debate was conducted not by specialists, or by members of the respective minority communities under discussion, but by white, predominantly male celebrities, which is surely somewhat amiss…

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Our comprehensive review of the year in arts and politics.

Critiquing the Critics

One response to all this would be to criticise the media for covering these sensationalised quarrels at the expense of more reflective content. Cultural journalism has itself been at the centre of a diverse range of rows this year, with the critics especially under attack. Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, took a swipe at the “dead white men” of theatre criticism and Philip Roth allowed one of his characters a ferocious diatribe against the “ideological simplification and biographical reductionism” of all literary journalism in his latest novel, Exit Ghost.

Meanwhile, the Booker Prize Chair Howard Davies infamously railed against the failings of book reviewers and the Observer’s pop critic Kitty Empire has recently come over all self-flagellating and lamented that most critics’ tips for bands to watch in 2008 represent an “effort to funnel listeners into pens of the industry's making.”

It is debatable if these events constitute a telling trend of some kind or are just a series of essentially self-contained, unrelated incidents. Comments on this, and on whether interventions like those of Hytner and Davies really do serve to make journalists more self aware, are welcome below.

In any case, despite the criticism, no one’s denying that there is still a lot of very good arts writing around: at the risk of seeming immodest, our own Arts & Books pages currently include interesting pieces by David Hare and Toby Litt and we will endeavour to go on providing the best in arts coverage in 2008.

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A recent blog on literary reviews.

News Round Up

This week reality TV, the Golden Globes shortlist, an art heist in Brazil and Amy Winehouse’slatest misdemeanours all generated a lot of coverage, but the most remarkable story must be the news that the planned loan of Russian owned paintings to the Royal Academy may not go ahead, possibly for politically motivated reasons.

Meanwhile, Tory about town & one time NS Theatre Critic Michael Portillo was revealed as the Chair of next year’s Booker panel, and, as the TV networks tried to whip up excitement over their Christmas schedules, The Guardian was keeping things resolutely high-brow, offering blogs on academic obfuscation, neglected Central Asian writers and the death of the cultural elite.

For those of a more spiritual bent, a debate was going on over whether Christmas in the West has become overly secular, while the web hosted an amusing dispatch from the “Mind, Body and Soul Expo” and Franco Zeffirelli announced that he is keen to give the Pope a makeover. Happy holidays.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition