Diana, framed by some crafty editing. Photo: BBC/Love Productions
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Diana was framed: why did the Great British Bake Off throw an innocent WI judge to the wolves?

Accusations of a stitch-up are flying after the baking show’s most controversial episode to date.

Something terrible happened in Britain last night. Some ice cream melted, and then was thrown in the bin. A man with a beard had a strop about it and stormed out of a tent. A woman was the victim of an entire nation’s assumptions that she had done something underhand. The country erupted.

I am, of course, talking about the Great British Bake Off. I’ve tried before to explain why apparently minor events on what is just a reality show about cake cause such upheaval. It’s the essential niceness of the programme – the checked table cloths, Mary Berry’s oh-so-blue eyes, Mel and Sue’s puns, the shots of a lovely garden in the sunshine – that makes even the smallest disruption seem like the worst thing that’s ever happened ever. And so it proved last night.

For dessert week, the fourth episode of the fifth series, the contestants were required to make a Baked Alaska as their final, “showstopper” challenge. If you’re not familiar with this particular confection, it’s a big dome made of sponge and ice cream, covered in meringue. It’s really difficult to make even in the most professional of circumstances, owing to the ice cream’s tendency to melt and ooze out through the cake in a rather disgusting fashion, and the problems caused by trying to cover the whole wet mass in something as unstable as beaten egg whites mixed with sugar. Let’s be clear: nobody likes Baked Alaska. It’s a strange Seventies concoction that’s oddly gooey and firm at the same time. Its repulsiveness is part of the challenge – if you can make it taste nice, you’re a bloody good baker.

It was even harder than usual for GBBO’s contestants, though, as they were trying to produce these monstrosities in a tent, on an extremely hot summer day. The Incident occurred when Diana, a 69-year-old Women’s Institute judge from Shropshire (and GBBO’s oldest-ever contestant) appeared to remove another contestant’s ice cream from the freezer and leave it on the side, where it promptly melted all over the counter.

Iain, a Northern Irish engineer with a ruddy beard like a Viking, lost it when he saw that his black poppy sesame seed ice cream had become a sloppy grey mess. He threw it in the bin and stormed out of the tent, refusing to complete the rest of the challenge. From what we saw on screen, it certainly looked as if Diana had deliberately sabotaged her fellow competitor, destroying his chances of a set ice cream in the time allowed. Twitter erupted in violent condemnation of her, and GBBO’s Wikipedia page was even briefly edited to reflect her new role as the nation’s most hated Ice Cream Melting Supervillain:

Except that she isn’t. In this new Britain where we all have to take sides over some soggy cake, I will proudly out myself as being on Team Diana. No doubt hoping for exactly the kind of drama they have caused, the programme’s editors made it appear as if Iain’s ice cream had been removed from the freezer deliberately, and for ages, hence its liquid state. In fact, presenter Sue Perkins has since confirmed that the ice cream was out of the freezer for 40 seconds, maximum, and that Iain’s subsequent strop was – as he himself said – the result of his own frustration at the difficulty of the challenge. After she saw the way the incident had been portrayed on screen, Diana was very upset, and has now said that she feels like it was “a stitch-up”.

Iain let his passion for cake get the better of him.
Photo: BBC/Love Productions

The fact that Iain was the contestant eliminated at the end of the episode has only fed the anti-Diana sentiment, of course, but it should be noted that nobody made him throw it all in the bin and storm off (as Paul Hollywood said on Twitter, they need something to judge). Another competitor, Chetna, also had problems with the heat and ended up presenting some sponge with ice cream on it, rather than the whole ridiculous edifice, and received nothing but kindness and understanding from the judges. Also, Iain hadn’t exactly covered himself with glory in the rest of the episode, coming 6th out of the 9 contestants in the tiramisu “technical” challenge. As he said himself, when he shamefacedly brought the bin up to present to the judges: “I had some issues with the ice cream and I let the frustration get the better of me.”

Diana herself made a slightly wobbly meringue swan, which was well-received by the judges. But Paul Hollywood had an additional bit of advice for her, telling her not to come up to be judged with her head down anymore.

“You should hold your head up,” he said. “Like a swan would.”

I, for one, hope that she glides, swan-like, through the rest of the competition.

Update 28 August 16:15

Diana will not be appearing in the Great British Bake Off again, following last night's controversial episode. The BBC say her departure was due to illness and not the events of episode 4. A spokesperson said:

“The night before episode five, Diana made a decision not to come back. This is not connected in any way to what happened in episode four.”

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist