Leading Article: The Dome was a bad idea, but we must start to make the best of it

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The Independent Online
There are two good arguments for praising the Government's plans for the millennium Dome. One is that it is going to happen, so we might as well look on the bright side. The other is that it is a much more testing intellectual challenge than going for the easy, negative cynicism which so disfigures modern journalism.

Too bad. We came to mock and stayed to, well, mock some more. We neither expected nor liked Tony Blair's decision to save the Dome last year, but we hoped we might be proved wrong. We thought that perhaps Mr Blair and Mr Mandelson had a cunning plan.

But with each passing day shortening the countdown, it has become more and more obvious that the Prime Minister's decision was an error. His announcement tomorrow, unveiling some of the things that are going to be in the Dome, seems unlikely to reverse this process.

In a way, it cannot, because it will not reverse the cart-before-horse nature of the project. Mr Blair cannot undo the fact that the Dome as architecture came before a decision as to what it was for.

The Dome will be home to a year-long show so fuzzily-defined it is only called an "Experience". An Expe rather than an Expo. A theme park without a theme. A "mind-boggling multimedia spectacular" (P. Mandelson again) that will boggle the mind about as much as a trip to the Science Museum or a spin on a 233MHz computer with a good graphics card.

Then there is Baby Dome, the 6,000-seater building outside the main structure which Mr Mandelson announced yesterday. What is that for? Live performances, apparently. It seems that, as soon as anyone started to work out what to put in the Dome it turned out they needed a different building altogether.

But back to the first argument. The big Dome will be built. Indeed, the skeleton of the structure is already up. Should we not try to make the best of it? Yes, of course. The "Experience" could still widen the debate about our future as a nation: how we will live in the Information Age, our values, our place in the world. Let us hope it will be more serious of purpose than we fear, and that we can learn from the mistakes of throwaway Disneyfication.

But it is also quite important to understand why pounds 400m of public money is being spent on something hardly anybody wants. Even if people like it when it opens, there would always have been other more popular - and more worthwhile - things on which the money could have been spent.

It was, after all, Mr Blair who made the point most forcefully that National Lottery proceeds are public money, when he allocated some of them to health and education services under the slogan "The People's Money". Just to underline the point, the Chancellor floated the idea at the weekend of spending a similar amount of lottery dosh on free TV licences for pensioners.

So why did Mr Blair, who had played hard ball with the Conservative Government when it appealed for bipartisan support, give the go-ahead? Mr Mandelson, now appealing equally unsuccessfully for bipartisanship, wrote in December: "It will provide a huge boost to jobs and the economy from visitor spending and tourism." Bunkum.

It was the negative reasons he gave which were more interesting. "All eyes will be on the Greenwich Meridian on 31 December 1999. It would have been a telling comment on ourselves if all we had to offer was bunting and 300 acres of contaminated wasteland."

In fact, all eyes are not on the Greenwich Meridian but on its opposite, the International Date Line on the other side of the world. What has really caught the eye has been the laughable antics of various Pacific Islands as they try to move the Date Line and so be first to see the sun rise in a year with a lot of zeros in it.

But it was clear that national pride was at stake. Mr Mandelson went on to ask: "What would the rest of the world have thought of a country that decided the event was just too big for it to pull off?"

It was the fear of not having anything to show at a time when the world would be going silly over a round number that prompted Mr Blair's decision. It was not a good reason, and it demonstrated a lack of confidence at the heart of his rhetoric of "national renewal".

Mr Mandelson's attempt to co-opt the Tories should prompt hollow laughter - we can be sure that were it to succeed, New Labour would take the credit. But if the project is a "national event" and not an issue of party politics, as he insists, then he should take Lord Richard Rogers' advice, and appoint a non-politician as ringmaster to oversee it.