2001

Peter Mandelson, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s fixer, spin doctor in chief, and Minister for the Millennium, recently appeared before the members of a House of Commons select committee to tell them the purpose of the dome which the British government is currently building at Greenwich at a cost of one and a quarter billion dollars, the most lavish spending on the forthcoming year 2000 anywhere on the planet, although the costs of the Roman Catholic Church for its Jubilee year in Rome may come close to it. “It’s a chance for people to think about their society, and hopefully improve it,” he said. The chief attraction, he added, would be an interactive computer game called surfball.

This is not to be the only delight. We are also promised the thrill of an enormous steel ball drawn to earth by a giant magnet, an intriguing prospect for those of us who had supposed that large metal objects were drawn to earth by gravity. In addition, according to the original plans, visitors would also be able to walk inside the model of a man, a hundred and fifty feet high, learning how the body works—or most of the body, since the man was to have no genital organs. The plan has since been modified: the figure will now recline, and be more than 300 feet long. It is not yet determined whether it will be male, female, or “genderless.”

This is not the first time that New Labour has adopted this somewhat unhappy symbolism. During the general election campaign the party ran a poster featuring a British bulldog (named Fritz, as it transpired); the Churchillian resonance of this was rather undermined when it was noticed that the animal’s manhood had been airbrushed out of existence. Indeed, the dome itself (originally planned by the last Conservative government, with the subsidiary purpose of reclaiming an area of land polluted by coal gas manufacture) is looking increasingly like an allegory of New Labour: shiny and modern, it is made of plastic and poorly resistant to stormy weather (it has an expected life span of twenty-five years), and no one yet has much idea what is going to be inside it. A more surprising light is cast on the new Britain by the news that, as in the old Soviet Union, special privileges will be reserved for the nomenklatura. Corporate hosts will be able to book tables to eat: the rest of us will have to queue.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the many international exhibitions across the world which followed it were inspired by commercial energy, pride in craftsmanship and industry, and a kind of moral vision. All these things seem to be lacking this time. Stephen Bayley, then creative director of the Millennium Exhibition, wrote in a recent article that it would contain “thought-provoking exhibits and experiences which blur the distinction between education and entertainment whose accumulative effect is to equip the individual visitor with liberating insights into the …

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