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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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