PROPOSITIONS : A party to last a thousand years

The millennium festival merits the boldest of gestures, argues Nicholas Snowman
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The Independent Online
As we approach the end of the millennium, everyone talks of the great national party that should mark the event. It might seem uncharacteristic of late-20th-century Britain to be in party mood, but there is a sense of light at the end of the gloom . Not only has England just won a cricket Test against Australia in Australia, but we're also pouring out pound coins in an orgy of national gambling.

The National Lottery has obviously "hit the spot"; and one of the results seems likely to be unprecedented funding for projects to mark the millenarian watershed five years hence.

A great many millennium-related projects, large and small, are already slipping off the nation's drawing boards. But as I write these lines in my office in the Royal Festival Hall, the principal permanent legacy of Britain's last great festival, I agree wholeheartedly with the Millennium Commission that there should also be one central, memorable event, a Millennium Festival.

What sort of festival would be appropriate for the new century? Probably not a vast, single-site, multi-building exhibition like the one the South Bank hosted in 1951. Certainly not one in which most of the buildings were designed to be temporary (as Sevillian friends, contemplating the rusting debris of 1992, never fail to mention). There is, indeed, an argument for a festival that is truly national in the sense that it is merely the co-ordination of a great many local initiatives all intended to open at the same time - everything from street fairs, firework displays and local regattas to the more extravagant examples of local pride that are being hatched up all over the UK.

But I feel that a historical watershed of such importance also merits something larger - a big, imaginative gesture that will come to be seen by future generations as a statement of our consciousness of the legacy of our past and our faith in the future.By this, I don't mean an insular festival that wallows in national "heritage" in an old-fashioned, self-congratulatory way, but rather a project that takes full account of great changes: our new multiculturalism, our changing role in the wider world - all the factors that have made Britain and the British people what they are now, and will profoundly influence what they will become in the new millennium.

People ask (just as they did at the time of the Festival of Britain): Who are we? How have we come to be the people we are? And what can we do to become the people we would like to be in the future? Thus, the Millennium Festival will play an important part in helping the British people to define themselves as they step over the threshold of history by regarding the future through the prism of what has preceded it. Now, if ever, is a time to sweep bureaucratic considerations under the table and to think big, bold, imaginative, risky, and lateral.

At the South Bank we have begun developing our own proposals, involving educational, artistic and other institutes throughout the country.

Our aim is to erect striking new buildings - on the very site once occupied by the Festival of Britain's Dome of Discovery - that will not only house the very hub of the proposed Millennium Festival but thereafter become a permanent structure celebratingand communicating the ever-changing possibilities presented to the arts and sciences of expanding technology. The Crystal Palace at the centre of our project symbolises both tradition and the future. A national Millennium Festival must do the same.

The writer is chief executive of the South Bank Centre.