In some ways it’s a pity that culture minister Margaret Hodge’s recent speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research has already been buried under the avalanche of denunciation that her comments regarding the Proms so generously invited, as there were other aspects of it which, while no less wrong-headed and dispiriting, might have at least generated a marginally more amusing script for subsequent public discussion.
For instance, does Ms Hodge genuinely believe, as she claims in her speech, that next year marks the ‘anniversary’ of Henry VIII’s accession? And would she please explain what she means when she says that one of the key achievements of this ‘well known figure in our history’ lay in — and I’m not making this up, it’s really in the text — ‘separating state and religion’? And does she ever worry that as aspirations for ‘our sectors’ go, ’embodying common belongings’ might be a less than inspiring battle-cry? And finally, does she actually agree with the somewhat bizarre little maxim, certainly included by someone amongst her remarks, that ‘traditions are only experiments that once worked’?
Well, the discovery of ‘a shared sense of common cultural identity’ (‘shared’ and ‘common’, no less) might seem a more galvanising proposition were government ministers to display a stronger grasp of language, history and tradition, almost as if these cornerstones of nationhood held any significance for them.
Instead, however, we are left with Ms Hodge’s comments regarding the Proms and the fuss that these have generated. If one looks, with the requisite charity and a degree of cultural empathy, it’s more or less possible to understand what she is trying to say here. Beyond the richly ropey syntax, her complaint seems to be that people from what she terms ‘different backgrounds’ do not feel ‘at ease’ with the Proms. Other observers have, in turn, expanded this, in the context of her speech, to suggest that she is in fact criticising the Proms for ‘failing to promote Britishness beyond a narrow audience’. Proms are not, in a word, ‘inclusive’, and hence must be encouraged to ‘bring people together’.
Now, so flawed was this comment, at so many disparate levels, that not only did the Leader of the Opposition take a pop at it — correctly name-checking populist Prom-related offshoots like the Proms in the Park and the Electric Proms — but in fact even the Prime Minister himself, by way of his official spokesman, felt it necessary to intervene:
Gordon Brown’s spokesman insisted that her comments had not been intended as an attack on the Proms, which he praised as a “wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution”.
“She supports the Proms, as does the Prime Minister. The Proms have done a good job with the BBC in broadening its audience,” the spokesman said.
“The Prime Minister’s position on this is quite clear. He thinks the Proms are a good institution.”
And just as the tone of rising panic so audible here defies easy summary, so too do the ironies incumbent on Ms Hodge’s choice of the Proms as her target. But let’s give it a go nonetheless.
First and foremost, the whole point of the Proms, from their beginnings in 1895, was to attract the sort of audiences who might otherwise never have troubled themselves with classical music. Not only were ticket prices pitched low, but a demotic informality was cultivated assiduously: patrons were allowed to eat, drink and smoke during performances, and indeed could also ‘promenade’ (i.e. wander about) in specified areas, which of course made the whole experience not entirely unlike that prevailing in the music halls that were, at some level, the early Proms’ natural competitors. Which is to say, the rowdy, flag-waving, sing-along, convivial excesses of the Last Night of the Proms are nothing but an amplification of exactly the features that were meant to make the Proms truly popular in the first place. Further, from Henry Wood’s long reign onwards, the Proms have generally offered a programme encompassing music that is, according to taste, somewhere between ‘light’, ‘fun’, and ‘woefully undemanding’, employing a blanket definition of ‘classical music’ including everything from jazz to film scores. The Proms in the Park initiative has ensured that Prom-type events take place not just in Kensington Gore, but in parks and open ground across the United Kingdom. And for those who can’t or won’t leave their own sofas in pursuit of cultural stimulation, the BBC broadcasts from the Proms more or less incessantly, both on radio and television, amid all its usual uninhibited self-advertisement. In short, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Ms Hodge’s attack on the Proms was the manifest, unsurpassable unsuitability of her target — and it is this, in turn, that leads me to wonder what she was actually seeking to attack.
For there is, let me reiterate, for all their sterling qualities, nothing remotely grand about the Proms. As it happens, last summer a friend and I decided to go to this Prom, which in every possible way was an absolute delight. Due as much to disorganisation as anything else, we ended up buying the most eye-wateringly extravagant tickets possible, which meant a box, super-comfortable seating and an excellent line of sight. The cost, therefore, was all of £36 each, which really wouldn’t take one very far at Covent Garden, the ENO or Glynebourne, let alone over a fortnight in Bayreuth at the height of the Festival. The cost might, however, have been as little as £5 if we’d planned ahead, rather than booking at the latest possible moment, over the internet — because in this sense, too, the Proms are anything but exclusive.
Once there, settling into our red plush eyrie, it was obvious that most of the audience had turned up in whatever they happened to be wearing to work that day, assuming that there are workplaces out there which tolerate jeans, aged jumpers and scruffy jackets. This glancing observation should not be taken, incidentally, to mean that the crowd was a homogeneous one, for in terms of age, accent and even ethnicity, those present were considerably more ‘diverse’ than the usual turnout for, say, a Friends of the Royal Academy event, Wimbledon or, for that matter, the Glastonbury Festival. And while the Early Music zealots were out in force, conversing knowledgeably if heatedly about some of the weirder instruments fielded by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the uproar that greeted the appearance of the admittedly swoon-worthy Ian Bostridge sounded less like polite recognition for a popular tenor than the sort of high-volume effusions one might expect to erupt in proximity to, say, James Blunt. Even at the time, untroubled by considerations of ‘access’, I rather warmed to all this. Not least in a Prom focused on the music of Purcell, Handel and Telemann, the lack of preciousness about ‘culture’, the basic enjoyment of fantastic tunes played beautifully and movingly, even a degree of pop-star-grade celebrity-worship, seemed supremely, magnificently apposite. Now, thinking back, I’d probably go so far as to assert that part of the magic of that evening lay in the sheer good humour of the audience, the straightforward appeal of the music, the whole Prom-ishly uncomplicated happiness of it all — a world apart, in every possible way, from so many of what Ms Hodge elsewhere welcomes as the ‘disruptive and oppositional’ cultural experiences afflicting so many of our stages, galleries and concert halls.
Needless to say, when the Proms were first conceived a century or more ago, the desire to attract a popular audience had little to do with ‘social cohesion’ in our vague, non-judgemental, contemporary sense, but quite a lot to do with the ongoing project of civilising the urban working classes through exposing them to the benefits not only of Christianity, temperance, thrift and cleanliness, but of high culture too: the greatest achievements of verse, art and music, which were assumed to be clearly superior, morally as well as aesthetically, to anything that working class culture could dream up for itself. One suspects that Ms Hodge would decry this sort of thing as old-fashioned, patronising, elitist and a distraction from the important job of equalising ‘life chances’. And at some level, at least in her own terms, she’d have a point. There seems, for instance, little sign that state-run education puts much effort into setting forth high culture, as opposed to some dumbed-down derivative by-product, before its charges, flagged up as something that everyone needs to internalise on the way to becoming fully human. To do so would, according to some of us, be the opposite of patronising or elitist, as it would suggest that our common high-cultural heritage is, potentially, the property of anyone who is willing to put in a bit of time and effort on its behalf. As state education does not reliably do this, however, whether as a result of programmatic intentionality or predictable public-sector incompetence, the wealth of cultural attainment, and indeed cultural confidence, remains very unevenly distributed indeed.
Ms Hodge’s speech is clear, in any event, in its rejection of assimilation — oddly so, in that history suggests that intelligent engagement with the dominant high cultural canon is necessarily a step along the path towards that richly mutual embrace that is genuine cultural assimilation. On the other hand, for those of us who think that cultural assimilation is no bad thing, Ms Hodge’s attack on the Proms is frustrating, if only because it seems to brand as unapproachable exactly the sort of friendly, unthreatening experience that might potentially, for all we know, reveal a whole new world of cultural adventure to someone who may genuinely have failed, on previous occasions, to find any way to unlock that particular door — or even to wonder what might lie behind it. (On a personal note, although my own demographic particulars presumably tick no boxes of interest to Ms Hodge and her commissars, the Prom I attended certainly prompted me to buy CDs, read books and listen to radio programmes that I might otherwise have written off as ‘not for me’ — and if this is true for someone who was already slightly acquainted with Baroque music, how much more impact might that performance have made on someone who knew nothing about classical music whatsoever, except perhaps that a night out sounded like good fun? What on earth is the value of telling such a person that the Proms, and all that accompanies them, are somehow not for him?)
In all likelihood, however, when our verbally disaster-prone Culture Secretary referred to ‘the Proms’, she meant not the multitude of ordinary concerts, with all their vaguely endearing variety in terms of style and period and quality — which is almost pity, incidentally, as the increasing diversity of ‘classical music’ is, in itself, a fascinating subject — but, rather, that curious one-night festival of flag-waving extrovert hilarity that is, and long has been, the Last Night of the Proms.
Now, the Last Night, it is true, includes music. No matter how impressive the performances before the interval, however, and the whatever the merits of the conductor and soloists, music is scarcely the point of the exercise: as even the BBC admits, entirely accurately, the Last Night is, first and foremost, a ‘celebration of British tradition’. And this, almost certainly, explains why Ms Hodge singled it out for criticism. One might pause for just a moment, though, to question the exact nature of her complaint regarding it. Does she wish it to remain much as it is, but with more dark-skinned participants? Or does she want fewer Union flags, fewer jokes, and fewer funny-looking hats? Does she want the programme to be changed so it doesn’t end with a football-terrace presentation of some of the more rousing patriotic music produced by Britain over the past few centuries — or would that all be okay if the people who were singing corresponded precisely, in the facts of their ‘background’, to the population of West Kensington, or Greater London, or the United Kingdom? Does she feel that the ambiance is too working class, or not working class enough, or perhaps just the wrong sort of working class? And who, exactly, are the people whom she says do not feel ‘at ease’ with the rituals of the Last Night — people who would love to attend and don’t dare, or conversely, people who have no interest in attending and hence have the good sense not to attend? And why, finally, are the Proms worth singling out in this regard, as virtually any event one can name — a football match, a Sikh religious festival, a mother-and-toddler drop-in centre, a Gay Pride march, a point-to-point, a tea dance for the over 80s, really one could keep on playing this game for hours — might be said to ‘exclude’ the sort of people who, for whatever reason, are unused to attending such occasions?
All of which brings us to something far more important than the Proms, or music, or high culture. Put bluntly, I do not think that the comfort, edification and inclusion of people from ‘different backgrounds’ is Ms Hodge’s genuine concern here, so much as the unconscious rules of propriety governing her own social class, which is to to say, the nameless yet unmistakable affinity-group of people who profess to admire Jon Snow, or think Cherie Blair unfairly maligned, or for that matter, who go on to become Labour culture ministers. The concept of propriety in question is exactly the one which makes it seem almost rude to mention a member of the royal family without articulating a slur of some sort, as well as the one that once rendered it obligatory to spew bile — however emphatically the spewer in question embraced and indeed enjoyed the material fruits of Thatcherism — on Lady Thatcher’s name, but which has now transferred itself, mysteriously, to the moral necessity of attacking Tony Blair, or rather ‘Bliar’, as a war-mongering imperialist, on every possible occasion, in exactly the way people elsewhere, raised by other tribes, intone a phrase or cross themselves or touch wood all but unconsciously, to avert an omen or protect against harm, because that is what the people of their tribe do.
Such proprieties are all the more rigorous and unforgiving for being so entirely tribal, so unspoken in their logic, so apparently visceral. Which is to say, I strongly suspect that Ms Hodge instinctively dislikes the Last Night of the Proms, not because of some failure of ‘inclusiveness’, but instead because the tone and character of the activity on show there — the boisterous, seemingly uncomplicated patriotism, coupled with an unabashed enthusiasm for tradition almost as an end in itself — seems to her obviously, if indescribably, distasteful. Her distaste will not be lessened by the fact, unarguable if puzzling, that the Last Night so clearly engages a audience broad enough to constitute some sort of threat to the efforts of Ms Hodge and people like her — those variously left-liberal journalists and broadcasters, the academics, playwrights, ‘working’ peers and so forth — to entrench yet further their own brand of cultural consensus, or in other words, to spread the unspoken Gospel of their proprieties further abroad, until all social classes, ethnic subgroups, age tranches and political micro-cultures come to be bound by them.
That these are unthinking habits, rather than well-thought-out positions, is implied clearly enough by the wretched, inchoate confusion of Ms Hodge’s speech, and by her inability to defend the Proms comment in particular once anyone questioned her regarding it. But those who basically agree with her are, whatever media comment might imply to the contrary, all around us — and not just where you’d expect, either (although, parenthetically, Ms Hodge does find backup precisely where you’d expect.) We work and play amongst such people, we live and die amongst them. Some of them, indeed, go on to become our friends. A former colleague and pal of mine — an intelligent yet guileless young woman, the surprisingly charming child of two CND-obsessed academics — had rather enjoyed sneering at the embarrassing general madness surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Yet she was visibly unnerved by the spectacle of those two hundred thousand people or more queuing for hours in order to file past the Queen Mother’s catafalque, imperial crown and all, in the Palace of Westminster. Could she explain why? Not in the least, except that she found it ‘creepy’ — which was evidently a genuine, physical response, as she could never mention the subject without a discernible shudder.
And indeed, one meets this again and again, from well-meaning neighbours, politically nebulous colleagues and charismatic semi-acquaintances, in responses to events like the 50th anniversary of VE Day, the Jubilee celebrations, the Queen’s birthday parade, or even the notion of taking a toddler out to hear the Guards’ bands playing show tunes in the parade ground of Wellington Barracks while the winter sleet ices the tarmac beneath them. Sometimes the revelation of unbridgeable cultural distance finds its expression in words, sometimes just in a raised eyebrow, perhaps most often in a silent but damning lack of interest. It is none the less emphatic for that, and it has consequences, not just played out over linen-draped dining tables or in the sandpit of the local playground, but in public policy terms as well. Probably, just to choose a simple example, such gut-level distaste had more to do with the abolition of the Royal Tournament than any financial considerations. And quite possibly, in due course, this same sense of enraged, left-liberal propriety will manage to kill off the Last Night of the Proms as we currently know it — for reasons having nothing to do with access to culture, and everything to do with a sort of haunting puritan anxiety about where people’s loyalties — other people’s loyalties — ought to be seen to lie.
For the sight of huge numbers of ‘ordinary’ Britons — which is to say, a group actually quite disparate in terms of age, social class, gender, religion and ethnic origins, as anyone who has actually spent any time in one of these crowds can easily attest — engaged in some form of vaguely patriotic activity, mediated by tradition rather than any worthy little programme concocted for them by their left-liberal masters, frankly frightens Ms Hodge and her ilk. And indeed, it ought to frighten them. They find themselves confronting a force that is older, stronger and more subtly ineradicable than anything they themselves can offer by way of alternatives. (It’s worth noting in passing that, as well as fearing patriotism and tradition, Ms Hodge’s confreres also hate the unapologetic articulation of religious belief, for all the predictable reasons.)
Faced with this reality, a certain sort of Labour Party figure — Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell — will positively seek out opportunities for high-profile accommodation with the monarchy, the armed forces and religious leaders, realising that to do so masks, to some extent, whatever sly or explicit undermining of tradition may be taking place elsewhere on the field. Meanwhile a different sort of Labour figure — Tony Benn, Peter Mandelson, the late Mo Mowlam, Margaret Hodge — is either too arrogant or alternatively too silly to bother with such subterfuge, instead wearing his or her prejudices unabashed out into the daylight, where the press first shouts them down, and then gradually grows used to them, before eventually deciding that the speaker is a real ‘character’ deserving the literary equivalent of a cuddle, rather than outraged censure. And as for the Conservative Party, towards which friends of patriotism and tradition might once have looked in the hope of securing allies, it is now so thoroughly distracted by its doomed courtship of sections of the press who will never love it except as counterpoint and enemy, the insecurity that encourages its over-anxious regard for the United States, the sort of self-hatred that leads it to condemn not only itself but the political and constitutional structures that have framed its historic successes, and a pathological obsession with change for its own sake, as to render it of very little use to anyone, either in this particular conflict or elsewhere.
And yet next year, whatever Ms Hodge may say or wish to the contrary, I suspect that the Proms will be as popular as ever, filling with Albert Hall with everyone from students, pensioners, journalists and tired housewives to academic musicologists, jazz enthusiasts, dreamers and people who simply wish to be transported, briefly, out of their lacklustre everyday world to somewhere at least potentially more diverting. On the Last Night, the scene will be awash, as ever, not only with the Union flag adorning a remarkable number of surfaces, but also with the flags of England, Scotland, Wales, the Czech Republic, the EU and pretty much everywhere else imaginable, all waved aloft in a famously good-natured event not exactly renowned for doing anyone any real harm. In good weather or bad, on the day of the Queen’s official birthday, the crowds will line the Mall to wonder at the professionalism of the over-worked soldiers executing their various mysterious orders, will cheer at the passing gleaming coaches, will make room so that other people’s children can obtain a better view, and trade jokes with amiable policemen. All over Britain, on important days and unimportant ones, patriotism will continue to be evident, and tradition will continue to matter, and religion will still be more of a moral force than the media, politics and culture all put together, however little fuss anyone makes of it. And no matter how much Ms Hodge and her tribe disapprove, no matter how bitter their contempt or derision, no matter how the deep the gulf separating their world from ours, we may, perhaps, in a few of those potent cultural moments, share a common apprehension. It may be this: that although Ms Hodge and her friends currently govern Britain, they do not really represent or even fully understand Britain — and their hold on it is, happily, far less secure than they probably imagine it to be.