Cultural apartheid?

The Proms remain a resolutely all-white, Middle English affair

Years ago, before politics intervened and I had a life, I was a regular at the BBC Proms. I was never a 'Promenader' as even when younger I could not stand the effort of standing or the attentions of the significant number of sad middle aged and elderly queens who occupied the floor of the Royal Albert Hall: it is supposedly the best gay pick up joint in London if you are looking for brains rather than body.

However, there I was the other Thursday at a sold out Prom featuring the Baroque music of Handel and Telemann. Thank goodness there was no "new BBC commission" of a ghastly modern piece or revival of some best forgotten rubbish by Tippett that you normally politely sit through in the first half before enjoying the rest of the evening.

Several months ago I was a guest at an excellent luncheon thrown by the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House to celebrate the arts in London (I could not quite work out my contribution Arts except the money I have paid out for theatre and opera tickets over the years) and one of the after-lunch speakers was the outstanding British tenor Ian Bostridge who proved that he had not just a voice but intelligence behind it as well.

He might well sing "Happy we!" from Acis and Galatea (although quite why he had his hand in his pocket whilst doing it I know not) during last Thursday’s concert as his acute business brain racked up the royalties on his new Handel CD and the free publicity the BBC were giving it.

But as I looked around a packed Albert Hall I saw barely one non-white face. The BBC Proms are entirely a white, middle class, suburban and Home Counties affair. As the concert over-ran due to endless changes in seating arrangements for the orchestra a significant contingent of the audience had to rush out before the encore to catch their trains to Dorking and all stations south.

Whereas a number of white Londoners flock to Notting Hill to view the Carnival (entirely as spectators), virtually no Black Londoners venture to a Prom. Classical music is just one area of London artistic life that shows no sign of an integrated society. Indeed, while the residents of Surrey, Hertfordshire and those London boroughs that cannot accept that they were incorporated into Greater London in 1965 feel safe venturing into Central London for a Prom, they would never dream of experiencing one of Ken Livingstone’s taxpayer-funded "cultural" extravaganzas in Trafalgar Square where they might have to mix with Londoners who think a movement is something their bowels do each morning.

Musicals may be for the West End queens and the foreign tourists, straight theatre for the artistic elite, and opera for the upper classes and the corporate sponsors but classical music concerts remain for the middle classes. The Proms are the BBC's way of keeping Middle England happy.

As London this week unveils its statue of Nelson Mandela our capital city’s cultural life continues to practise a firm apartheid system.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.