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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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