The pride that came before the fall of the Dome

Warnings of disaster at the Dome have been as regular as railway signals passed at danger
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The Independent Online

The row over the leak of Cabinet papers apparently "blaming" the Prime Minister for the Dome is certainly entertaining - as much fun, in its way, as the great Dome Diamond Heist last week. None of this, good copy though it is, should distract us from what lies at the heart of the Millennium Dome: hubris.

The row over the leak of Cabinet papers apparently "blaming" the Prime Minister for the Dome is certainly entertaining - as much fun, in its way, as the great Dome Diamond Heist last week. None of this, good copy though it is, should distract us from what lies at the heart of the Millennium Dome: hubris.

Hubris, that is, in all its meanings - presumption, pride, excessive self-confidence and a sort of insolence, originally towards the gods.

I began to see that this was the prime cause when I read the report prepared by the National Audit Office for the House of Commons. Excessive self-confidence was clearly evident in the astonishing guidelines issued by the Millennium Commission in 1995 when the project was launched. These expressed the aspiration that operators should plan with the knowledge that "as a minimum... the exhibition will attract 15 million people".

What, five times as many visitors as Britain's most popular pay-to-visit attraction, Alton Towers? From a standing start? Without knowing where it would be situated, what it would be showing and what tickets would cost?

Is this not an example of insolence, in this case of government towards the people - we'll lay this on, you are bound to like it and think it worth the money? Stephen Dorrell was Secretary of State at the time; Michael Heseltine, Simon Jenkins, the Earl of Dalkeith, Baroness Scotland (now a Labour minister) were among the commissioners.

Hubris, by the way, is not a condition reserved for governments alone. The prospectuses of many dot.com companies demonstrated the very same sentiments. They have likewise lost enormous sums of money for their shareholders. The only difference is that, outside government, the condition is more swiftly diagnosed and more effectively guarded against.

The gods' punishment for hubris seems to be blindness; warnings that a disaster is in the making regularly turn up, but they are never regarded. Hubris is pride as well as excessive self-confidence.

Indeed, since May 1995, when the Millennium Commissioners issued their mad estimates, warnings of disaster have been as regular as railway signals passed at danger. Except that in this case the driver of the train (the Government) has passed through a succession of red lights without having once tried to bring the operation to a halt. There have been occasional touches on the brakes, but no more.

Even the acquisition of the original site was thought to be too expensive and required a special direction from the Government before it could be bought. Then, when an attempt was made to bring private-sector finance into the Dome operator, no company willing to share the risks could be found.

Instead, the Government asked industry for funds by means of sponsorship. But of the 26 sponsorship arrangements supposed to be in place by the end of November 1999, only six were done. Advance ticket sales were consistently disappointing. The opening ceremony was marred by inadequate transport arrangements. January's visitors were half what they should have been. Easter was seen as critical but the figures were poor. And so on.

Again, many businesses as well as governments have gone though the misery of the ill-fated project. At each re-evaluation, what are believed to be much more pessimistic estimates are substituted for the now discredited assumptions. But the downwards revision never seems to be enough. The mistake is so profound that it cannot be corrected. What usually happens is that a fresh management team arrives and calls a halt. Because the newcomers have no pride at stake, they immediately stop the project and that is that.

Thus the truly remarkable aspect of the story of the Dome is that a new team - the Labour Government - did come in in 1997, yet it went on with the project. And it continued, even though (and only now, thanks to leaks, do we know the nature of the discussion around the Cabinet table) nobody knew what the Dome would actually contain. And so the train charged on, passing red light after red light.

The most emphatic of these warnings is the risk of insolvency. If private companies ignore this last flashing light, the next thing they know is that they have flown off the rails and the train is wrecked. But not governments. This warning, the most terrible of all, they can switch off. And the Government did.

The Dome will shortly close. It is now, officially, a disaster. And the enquiries into what happened have already begun. But I don't believe that there is any great secret to be discovered. We already know the cause. It was hubris. Both Mr Major's government and Mr Blair's presumed too much.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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