Revisiting the Festival of Britain

How the age of austerity came to an end on the South Bank.

I've been revisiting my youth, touring "Museum of '51" at the Royal Festival Hall and reading Barry Turner's Beacon for Change, How the Festival of Britain shaped the modern age. The museum experience was not an unalloyed pleasure.

Did its designers deliberately recreate a museum of the period?. The captions are small, crowded, passive and often inconveniently located. The contemporary documentaries serve the purpose better but their emphasis on ordinary people, ordinarily clothed, triumphs over the extraordinary surroundings and reinforces the impression of drabness though, indirectly, reminding me of the Festival's promise: austerity would end.

Its impresario, Gerald Barry, emphasised the need for gaiety, welcoming the serious whilst eliminating the earnest. He set the tone, reprising it, a month after the Festival closed, in the New Statesman: "We tried to say our piece disarmingly with wit and an occasional dig at ourselves." Precociously post modern!

Barry had an ally in like-minded Hugh Casson, the director of architecture. The enterprise had a coherent personality, unlike the Millennium Dome at the century's end

The Festival also had a dome, the biggest aluminium structure ever built, the Dome of Discovery. It was just one of 14 pavilions. Another was originally called "The communication of ideas". "Too dull," said Casson and rebranded it "The Lion and the Unicorn" to reflect Britain's strength and imagination. It promoted, according to Turner, "an artificial national self-image ... [ becoming] possibly the most popular feature of the entire Festival".It also inspired the entire Festival which an official documentary summed up as "serious fun and light-hearted solemnity".

A third structure - one of four prominently featured in "Museum of 51", the other being Abram Games's omnipresent Britannia logo - was Skylon. A futuristic aluminium icon, 90 metres high, created by architects Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell with engineer Felix Samuel, it had form but no overt function. The caption in the current display reads: "It did not stand for democracy, freedom or future happiness. It did not stand at all". So there.

If Skylon epitomised the Festival's whimsical side, it also symbolised the qualified victory of Barry and Casson over bureaucratic interference by authority, government or union, forever enshrined in Casson's phrase "armed invincibly against the enchantment of enthusiasm".

I witnessed officialdom in action in my vacation role of temporary turnstile operator at the Battersea Park funfair. Chelsea on the opposite bank shared a bridge with Battersea but its council opposed the idea of a festival and switched off its half of the bridge's lights one hour before Battersea.

What was the Festival's legacy? "The melding of modernist design with breakthroughs in science and technology," says Turner, "[offered] a tantalising glimpse of the future ... in the following decades grants to museums, galleries and performing arts increased fourfold .. the Festival became a blueprint for new towns." Said Casson :"for the first time in generations architecture has been talked and written about by people who are not architects".

The Royal Festival Hall endures but, unlike its Millennium counterpart, the Dome of Discovery (and the other pavilions and Skylon) went to scrap when Churchill resumed power.

The Festival would be criticised for being middle class, urban rather than rural and an odd mixture, as Cheryl Buckey puts in her 2007 book Designing Modern Britain, of "the progressive, paternalistic and anachronistic". Though "Museum of 51" could be similarly described, I emerged understanding how the Festival was both what deputy prime minister Herbert Morrison hoped it would be, "a tonic to the nation" and, what Turner terms it, "a beacon for change".

David Bernstein is an author and creative consultant. He is a former creative director of three advertising agencies

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump