Tuesday Book: A battle against philistinism

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The Independent Culture
WITH HIS usual flair, Stephen Bayley greets the Labour conference with the accusation that New Labour is guilty of fascism and philistinism. Bayley is the "design guru" whose meretricious celebrity turned to notoriety earlier this year when he resigned as the consultant creative director at the Millennium Dome, crying in frustration that the Millennium Experience could turn out to be "crap".

This short book, written with the verve, wit and plausibility that has powered Bayley's rise from his humble origins as a design historian, is his revenge. It takes in a lot more than the Dome. He detects New Labour's incipient fascism in its Orwellian instant-rebuttal machine, Excalibur, and its love of the pseudo-event, demonstrated in Cool Britannia and the rebranding of Britain. Its love of spin he attributes - hardly originally - to the man who caused his departure from the dome: the New Millennium Experience Company's single shareholder, Peter Mandelson.

Bayley warns: "Here is a Government which strikes liberal poses, but is in fact decidedly authoritarian. Without wanting to indulge in hysterical exaggeration, New Labour's obsession with style and propaganda has much in common - at least in the structural sense recognised by anthropologists and historians - with the Fascist governments of pre-war Germany and Italy." For Blair's "the People" read Hitler's "Volk".

To the style-conscious Bayley, philistinism is as much a crime as fascism. He has fun with Lord Irvine's wallpaper and Chris Smith's unfortunate book, Creative Britain. The most energetic and interesting pages are devoted to the Dome and his unpleasant experience there. Sadly, this account will not be much use to historians.

He calls the press officer Gez Sagar as "a shifty little character" whose training in Walworth Road has produced the "furtive retraction and denial" style of public relations, typical of New Labour. Yet we learnt far more about where the bodies are buried from Bayley's diary, published in April's Esquire magazine. What we do learn is that buried in this heavily polluted site is "a bright orange barrier layer of plastic... just below the surface, both to contain the toxins and warn men with shovels of the simmering subterranean threat."

Bayley's case rests on the Dome having been hijacked by New Labour as "a political advertisement". The conflict between the genuine creativity available in Britain and the closed, Civil Service mentality of those running it has produced "a paradigm of bad management", where the answer to every problem is to call in the consultants. The problem is compounded by Mandelson's "disposal attitude to aesthetics" and political slipperiness. This has led to such stratagems as the invention of a non-existent sport - Surfball, supposedly to be played in the Dome - in order to fool a parliamentary committee.

Without creative leadership - and here I heartily agree with Bayley - the Dome is an empty shell where the designers are like film crew "asked to make a movie without a director and without a script". There is enough advertising money to make the Dome a successful visitor destination; "the tragedy is the lost opportunity". In Bayley's view: "The man responsible for hijacking a project that could have been one of the great international world exhibitions, but is instead going to be a crabby and demoralising theme park, is Peter Mandelson."

From its title onwards, Bayley's polemic relies heavily on the arguments of Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Notes on Camp. Camp, she argued, signified the triumph of style over content. Whole schools of cultural theory have been built on such deciphering of the iconography of everyday life; it is a real pleasure to see the methodology applied to a concrete political situation. The victory of style over content sums up New Labour nicely.

Yet we must ask whether Bayley, who sees typography "as far, far more important in the general run of things than politics itself", isn't a bit camp. He is the quintessential product of the culture of consumption. Given his insights as the Dome's stylist, this book could have done with more content. Nonetheless, when he abandons his preening prose and point- scoring to write an open letter to the Prime Minister we can see that, about the Dome at least, Bayley is right.

London truly is a creative place, he writes, and in the Dome the opportunity existed to make "Greenwich a comprehensive showcase for talent and expertise". In his view, "the Millennium Experience should be a confident expression of a vision, based on superb academic research, supported by sponsors who are cultural and technical collaborators, not merely sources of funds, and executed with uncompromising bravura by the very best architects, artists, film-makers, musicians, writers and designers."

But as long as the politicians are in charge, that won't happen. The Dome remains an intellectually empty space, built on politically poisoned ground.