True confessions of a social outcast

Andrew Marr comes out for the dome

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It is time to come out. Whether the cause is some buried trauma in my upbringing, or genetic, or simply a failure of judgement, I do not know. But there is nothing that can be done, except to admit it. I am a member of the most reviled and outcast minority on these islands, harried through the streets, silently pitied by generous-minded relatives and the object of sniggering derision at parties.

Yes, all things considered, I am rather in favour of the Millennium Dome.

There. Feeling better already. Better out than in. I should add that I am not paid by the Government to say this, that Peter Mandelson has nothing on me, that I am seeking no official role, job or emolument, and am writing - it being 10am on a crisp, bright morning - in as near as I ever get to a state of cold sobriety.

The Dome is so hated, by so many decent and intelligent people, and has accumulated so few friends and so many hard questions, that to be on its side puts me in a tiny minority. Drug-pushers are more numerous and popular than Dome enthusiasts. So are urban druids. So, probably, are drug-pushing druids.

The Dome is so unpopular that it has become an all-purpose trump card for anyone criticising official folly. You are angry about the Government's attitude to single parents? Well, why couldn't they use the money they're wasting on the Dome, instead? Tony Blair's getting above himself? You bet. Look at the Dome, a monument to hype.

On it goes. Modern architecture stinks? That spaceship Dome. Hate pollution? That plastic Dome. Britain's got delusions of world grandeur? That pompous Dome. Whitehall is still too closed a culture? That secretive Dome. The British aren't serious about high culture? That themeless theme-park Dome. The south gets it all? That London Dome. We are a short-termist country? That temporary Dome.

Even as its skeletal structure rises, with wires and cranes and earthmovers, it seems as though the Millennium Dome is becoming a kind of malign psychic magnet, attracting the whole nation's bile, discontent and suspicion of change to a small kink in the lower Thames.

That may count as a perverse achievement in itself: just as the anti- Blairite conspiracy theorists in the Labour Party blame everything on Peter Mandelson, so the rest of the country blames everything on his Dome. Can it be long before William Hague and Ken Livingstone are marching, arms linked, through Shadwell at the head of a huge, snaking throng of ruralists and homeless teenagers, bellowing ``dump the Dome''?

And of course, the Dome could be a failure. It could be too difficult to get to for the millions of expected visitors, or too expensive to lure them in the first place. It could feel banal. It could look amateurish compared with the slick ``are we all having fun now?'' packaging of commercially- run theme parks. Lots of things could go wrong, ranging from the truly disastrous to the frankly hilarious, to Peter Mandelson's Dome.

Except, of course, that it isn't Peter Mandelson's Dome, or Richard Rogers's Dome, or Tony Blair's Dome. It is our Dome, paid for with our money as the centrepiece of our celebration of an event which, despite all the quirks of history and arguments about dating, is nevertheless a landmark in human time which won't come around again for a while. The Dome is going to happen. If you'd prefer, instead, a 1,000-ft alabaster statue of Shelley, or a free CD-Rom for every European child, or the pedestrianisation of Wales, then I'm afraid it's too late.

Nor will the Dome cost a ridiculous amount of money; indeed, it may make money. It hasn't twisted spending priorities overall. Had it not existed, the same Labour policies on welfare and education would have been implemented; there would have been no extra pot of gold. As it happens, the project has survived Michael Heseltine's forlorn attempt to keep it private; and a change of government; and is running on time.

The hostility may be huge. But, according to Simon Jenkins, the columnist who is also on the Millennium Commission, public derision was even worse before the Victorian Great Exhibition and the post-war Festival of Britain. In the former case only the energetic patronage of Prince Albert ensured that the glorious Crystal Palace (a speedily built and impermanent structure, just like the D***) went up. In the case of the latter, a rain-drenched trade show which only later became a great symbol of post-war British revival, virtually all the Cabinet was against it and the press was even more aggressive than today's Dome-knockers.

Today's anti-Dome mood may reflect a contemporary lack of confidence in the ability of politicians or the state to deliver anything impressive or interesting - a satire-saturated, post-Thatcher scepticism. We are not used to looking to grandeur or vision from our leaders. But such scepticism is itself traditional. The question now is: can the Dome do something useful that our privatised infotainment culture can't?

For the answer to be yes, the experience must make us think and argue in ways we wouldn't otherwise do. Success will be measured by its organisers by visitor numbers and the extent of worldwide media coverage: does it sell tickets? Does it keep Britain on the map? But, for the rest of us, success will be harder and more interesting to calibrate. It will be measured by what we said and thought during and after our experience of it. Did we carry away a certain mental energy and strong memories, or not?

So a lot hangs on the private plans drawn up by designers. The Dome should not be consensual, bland or backward-looking. It needs to pose hard questions about human futures, the choices and lifestyles ahead, the consequences of new technologies. Is the car culture going to carry on growing, or shrivel away? What future is there for the countryside? What drugs will we take, and how will they change us? Will we explore space further, and why? Is there a limit to human longevity? Will we carry on finding and using carbon fuels? For how long will sex and reproduction continue to be linked?

It doesn't need a state-sponsored show to ask questions, of course. But the authority and reach of the state, even in these privatised years, is such that it can cause them to be asked and debated more widely and vigorously than any private company could.

And that seems to me to be worth risking money and reputations to achieve. Political leadership cannot simply be all bread and no circuses; and if the circus is a provocative, inspiring one, so much the better. The Dome, in the end, will stand as an example of old-fashioned leadership, taking us into the 2000s in a thoughtful, well-informed and alert way. It has the potential to be the grandest and most enjoyable act of public education any of us have witnessed. Until and unless it fails to live up to that, we should all belt up and give it a chance.

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