Family matters

When Roger Wright became the Proms' new director, debate raged even in his own household about wheth

It was a traditional bank holiday family gathering in the Wright household. The traditional British summer weather was much in evidence and the garden furniture was left outside in the pouring rain. Another tradition then took over: the family discussion that threatens to turn into something more heated. The subject in question was that most traditional of events, the Last Night of the Proms. "What are you going to do about the Last Night?" Jane helpfully asked, in that forceful way elder sisters have when they know what they want the answer to be. Before I had chance to say anything, other family members had put in their early "pre-buttals", giving dire warnings of life-threatening catastrophes if I changed anything about the Last Night.

So, clearly the debate still rumbles on about what is an appropriate way to bring the world's greatest music festival to a close. How many times can I say, "You can't please everybody"?

The blind acceptance of tradition in some circumstances is simply laziness. Tradition and heritage need to be examined and, where appropriate, maintained and celebrated. However, they also need to be made fit for our times. As T S Eliot commented: "A tradition without intelligence is not worth having." When I took over BBC Radio 3 almost ten years ago, I was reminded by the contents of my postbag from day one that change needs to be handled sensitively. Such feedback continues to this day: "I have heard that you are making changes to Radio 3. I don't know what they are but I ask that you reverse them immediately."

As such, I was ready for angry reactions to any changes we proposed to make to the BBC Proms. I was not, however, prepared for the culture minister, Margaret Hodge, singling out the Proms for criticism in a speech about national identity a few weeks before this year's Prom season was launched. Not least because, after a visit to the concerts last year, she had written: "It was a glorious evening which demonstrated yet again what a fantastic institution the Proms are. A wonderful part of summer in London, the Proms had the hang of broadening access decades before it became a government staple."

I don't know what had happened between September and March to make the minister change her mind, but it was extraordinary to feel the strength of response that her speech unleashed. The Prime Minister was quick to praise the Proms, and he wasn't alone. Indeed, such was the noise created that the questions I had anti cipated about the Last Night never materialised - a consensus seemed to have been reached about the position of the Last Night, namely that it was simply not an issue. Everyone was keen to debate the real innovations in this year's programming: the first free prom, the return of Nigel Kennedy, Stockhausen Day, and the arrival of Doctor Who at the Royal Albert Hall.

The culture minister was right to raise the question of audiences and access, but found the wrong target in a festival that has always been a model of linking quality with accessibility. Where else can you see a world-class concert for £5 (or £2.23 if you buy a season ticket, or even £0 if you come on Folk Day)? Whatever the state of the UK or the nations, there is a broad acceptance of the special place it holds in our cultural life.

In tackling the Last Night, we asked ourselves what exactly this much-vaunted tradition consisted of. This year, we have planned a number of re-creations, repeating programmes and ideas from previous Proms, as it is always fun to experience how programming used to be. Initially I thought we might re-create the Last Night from 1908 as a celebration of the Last Night tradition. When I looked into it, however, I discovered that with such a re-creation, there would be no "Jerusalem" or "Land of Hope and Glory". The "Fantasia on Sea Songs" was there (performed for the first time at the Last Night), as was an Elgar "Pomp and Circumstance March" (no 4, not no 1). What we think of as the "traditional" sequence was not performed. The rest of the programme was a splendid, if lengthy pick-and-mix typical of the period, including operatic arias, Franck's "Panis Angelicus", German's "Harvest Dance" and "West Country Lad", Offenbach's "Barcarolle" and the "Hungarian March" by Berlioz.

It was not until the 60th season of the Proms in 1954 that all four pieces we now expect to be in the second half of the Last Night programme appeared together, and even since then they have not all featured every year. So, replacing the Henry Wood "Sea Songs" in this year's festival with the Ralph Vaughan Williams "Sea Songs" is simply an additional celebration of Vaughan Williams in his anniversary year, and also a continuation of another grand tradition - the ongoing reinvention of the Last Night tradition itself.

I was also keen this year to link the Last Night more to the rest of the festival. It is the celebratory conclusion of the whole season and so, to have music linked to previous concerts (this year folk songs, Vaughan Williams and Beethoven) makes this final concert a fitting climax rather than a separate event tagged on at the end.

New music has always played an important part in the Proms and this year's Last Night is no exception. We have commissioned the young Scottish composer Anna Meredith to write a piece not only for the performers at the Royal Albert Hall but also for the musicians who will be playing at the Proms in the Park concerts in Hyde Park, Belfast, Glasgow and Swansea.

The audience for the first Last Night was a few thousand in the Queen's Hall; more than a century later, the event reaches a global audience of millions. As David Cannadine, the perceptive chronicler of Last Nights, wrote: "Whether it is derided as 'ossified' or applauded as 'traditional', perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Last Night of the Proms, beyond the extraordinary narrative of its creation and survival, change and continuity, has been the inexorable, exponential growth in its audience." Who knows how the Last Night will develop in the next decade? For the moment, I'll simply keep to hand Somerset Maugham's observation, that tradition should be "a guide and not a jailer".

The BBC Proms begin on 18 July. For more details, log on to:

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide