A truly fitting monument to government folly

I have a searing and abiding memory of my one amazing day at the Dome
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The Independent Online

It was there, for the first and only time, that I lost my son, then two-and-a-bit, for any length of time. One minute he was right next to me. Then he'd seen something, run towards it, and in seconds had been engulfed by the crowd. At first I was calm, sure I'd find him in a minute. Then I was panicked, shocked by his sudden and complete disappearance, flooded with worst-case scenarios, of abduction, injury, death, never seeing him again, never knowing ...

It was there, for the first and only time, that I lost my son, then two-and-a-bit, for any length of time. One minute he was right next to me. Then he'd seen something, run towards it, and in seconds had been engulfed by the crowd. At first I was calm, sure I'd find him in a minute. Then I was panicked, shocked by his sudden and complete disappearance, flooded with worst-case scenarios, of abduction, injury, death, never seeing him again, never knowing ...

When we found him, he was in the shop, grasping a model of the Dome, four inches in diameter, staring at it beatifically and expressing his desire to possess the object for ever. It was staggeringly over-priced, and was firmly replaced on the shelf. There's a metaphor there, of course, for the Dome is nothing if not a metaphor.

I'd been, I freely admit, quite severely infected with optimism about the Dome, and had organised a trip for my son, my stepchildren and a friend of theirs as early in January 2000 as we all could manage. The children loved it, so the day was deemed a success, albeit a hugely expensive one. But as an education or an entertainment for adults, the Dome was, in the opinion of our group, something of a failure.

This was certainly the feeling of my friend John, who had taken his partner there on New Year's Day, having booked the tickets months before. John, a committed New Labour supporter, had been extremely supportive of the idea of the Dome. After his visit though, he was disgusted. He felt patronised and ripped off. He considered that the Dome was a terrible missed opportunity.

What made him most angry, however, was that the Government was at that time insisting that those who criticised the Dome were naysayers and cynics, who lived to rubbish and belittle everything, who had no imagination and no vision. He did not take at all kindly to the idea that his disappointment was due to nothing more than his own bad will. And no wonder, because nothing could be further from the truth.

The poor, pathetic Dome. One year old, and redundant. A grand folly whose life has been brief and eventful and painful. A monument to Britain that in its sad failure, oddly, has done just what it set out to do.

The Dome was conceived as a millennial project that would talk to us and the world about what it meant to be British in the year 2000 and in the years to come. Our interlocutors, through this elaborate yet echoingly empty medium, would be the Government.

Significantly, it was not the project of one particular government. Labour and Tory alike wanted to have this conversation with us. Each party was beguiled by the idea that by telling us we were great, they'd really be telling us that they were great. Each party was keen to own and produce sheer feel-good factor, not by running the country fairly and well, but by franchising a tiny peninsula, square metre by square metre, then inviting us to pay up to come and gaze at the contents in passive wonder.

Instead it told us quite different things, and told us all too clearly. And if our leaders, who were so certain that this was a national conversation we had to have, still believe in the project - as they say they do - then they really ought to be listening to what this project has said to us and to them.

The Dome has told us and them that style is not enough. It is substance that counts. A huge empty space delineated by the design of a great architect is still a huge empty space.

From the beginning, critics counselled the Government that deciding to mount an exhibition without first deciding what would be exhibited was insane. The whole point of the structure itself was straightforwardly its huge span. But it was just too big. In takeover-hungry capitalist profit centres, big may, arguably, be beautiful. In terms of human creativity, big is just big. The theatrical show that played in the central dead area of the Dome was the most obvious example of this - no matter how much the performers boinged and tumbled, they could not credibly fill that space.

The Dome told the Government, and us, that our idea of our national identity is far too grandiose. Politicians were utterly seduced by the idea that the Dome would restore Britain as a world leader, a dominant force, to which every other nation would look in envy. What kind of petty, jingoistic ambition is this? What sort of screwed-up nostalgia does it conjure up? And what has the Dome actually done for our international identity, except mark us as incompetent show-offs?

The Dome has told us that our Government is overly ambitious, but unable to grasp detail and not good at delegation. The most annoying thing about the Dome is that there were genuinely many fabulous, interesting things to see and do there. But to get to the good stuff, one had to wade through a sea of dross - or queue for ages. The most annoying experience was to queue for ages, and then get into a zone to find it crushingly disappointing.

I'm not suggesting that the experience is exactly similar to bouncing around in the world of government policy and initiative, but it often feels that way.

The Dome has informed us that our Government is a bad manager, unwilling to plan on the basis of common sense, and instead more willing to trust to blind faith and the idea of its own popularity and purported charisma. When the Dome was about to open, Tony Blair was keen to stamp it with his approval. When he saw that his approval was not making a great deal of difference, he shut up. Is this conviction politics, or just inept bandwagon-jumping. Sadly, it is quite certainly the latter.

The Dome has told us that the Government thinks we are children. We have in turn told the Government that we are not. Instead, rather shockingly, we have learnt just how childish our leaders can be. A project which, if successful, they would have been clamouring to take credit for, has in its failure, been the responsibility of no one actually involved in the process.

We have learnt how eager the Government is to blame others for its failures. And again and again, in that failure, insults have been tossed at the general public. Those who stayed away from the Dome were told in an advert that they were sheep who couldn't think for themselves. At the same time, there has been a clear message that thinking for oneself can only have one result - uncritical approval for all that is contained within the Dome.

But that, it must be obvious to anyone, is not possible when the various standards of the exhibits were so patchy. Strike lucky and you can go to the Dome and see nothing but fascinating, stimulating exhibits. But it is just as easy to be unlucky, and enter zone after zone to find only dross.

The Dome has told us that the Government has no grasp of the past or of the future and only a very febrile grasp on the present. The oddest thing about the Dome is the way in which its animation is suspended, with no sense of how we got here and why. This is because the entire project was undertaken without that kind of intellectual underpinning. In the Dome, everything is now and everything is good. Despite the acres of space, there's no room for anything else.

The Dome has also displayed how little our supposedly media-literate Government understands the media. The accusation that the newspapers were critical of the Dome because their editors had to queue on millennium night is laughable. With all due respect to my own editor, Simon Kelner, who did indeed queue to get into the Dome, I'm quite happy to go on the record as believing that there isn't a newspaper editor in Britain who wouldn't benefit from a bit of queuing. Nor is there one who could tell me that I must have certain opinions because they had a bad time.

Instead, the media is not a homogeneous group of old boys doing nothing but expressing their own concerns. All sorts of people, not just journalists, put their ideas across in the media. Chief among these opinion formers are, of course, politicians, who barely seem to trust their own opinions once they've had them published.

At all stages in the Dome's development, interested parties of all kinds gave advice or warnings about the Dome. These were all ignored, and are still being ignored, even though they have proved to be perfectly correct.

For, sadly, the most important thing that this project has told us is that our leaders do not listen. And there is no sign at all that they are listening now. There are very many lessons that can be learnt from the Dome. Perhaps at this time, the most relevant one is that nearly everyone rates the extension of the Jubilee Line as the great triumph of the project.

Maybe the Government should have spent a little more time improving the infrastructure of the country, and a little less time developing concepts, themes, world views and moral standpoints. The Dome's only chance of grabbing itself some lasting value is that, possibly, this lesson might still be learnt.