From ‘Bake Off’ to Brexit, the UK Right keeps putting dogma ahead of success

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From the BBC to schooling to Brexit, Britain is ruled by those ready to wreck what works, for the sake of dogma

By Jonathan Freedland
17:45 September 19, 2016

I’d like to blame the government for the imminent departure, and perhaps demise, of the Great British Bake Off. Partly because it’s a national habit to blame the government for any and every woe. And partly because demise does not seem too pessimistic a forecast for the fate of this much-cherished show once it leaves the BBC. If you’re in any doubt, reflect on just two words: Des Lynam. A national treasure at the BBC, Lynam shifted across the airwaves in 1999 to do pretty much the same thing — fronting a football highlights programme — for a commercial rival, only to see his popularity plunge.

There is no logical reason why Lynam’s move shouldn’t have worked — just as Bake Off should, by rights, be a hit on Channel 4. But the alchemy of television is strange. Some things just work best on the BBC. Plenty of Bake Off devotees saw last week’s news as only the latest gloom-bomb to have been dropped by 2016. As if Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump were not depressing enough, now they have to go and ruin a lovely show about cakes. What else is this year going to inflict on Britons: A plague that takes out kittens and disfigures puppies?

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The rational voice within tells us to keep calm, insisting that the Bake Off selloff has nothing to do with the British government and still less to do with Brexit. But what if, on this question, the calm voice of reason is wrong? What if there is a connection, even if it’s not the one you think? Consider the context of the BBC’s loss of this programme. It came because the corporation knew it could not pay the £25 million (Dh91.95 million) a year Love Productions — Love Cash might be more accurate — were demanding for it. Of course, the BBC could afford the money, but it could not afford the firestorm it knew would rain down from its critics on the Right, whether in the Conservative party or in the BBC-bashing press. The BBC would have been monstered for shelling out £75 million of the public’s money on a tent, a few ovens and lots of souffles. So they held back, in the certain knowledge that they’d soon be monstered for not having enough shows loved by viewers in their millions.

This is the double bind in which the Right constantly ensnares the BBC. Call it the Strictly paradox. When the BBC has a hit, it’s slammed for producing a show that could be on commercial TV. But if the BBC had no such hits, confining itself to worthy output no other channel would screen, then it’d be slammed for failing to serve the mass audience that pays for it. It’s damned if it wins and damned if it doesn’t.

Prime Minister Theresa May was at it again last week, inserting a new demand that the BBC reveal the salaries of on-air talent earning more than £150,000. The BBC is required to compete with its commercial rivals, but must carry a burden they do not. ITV doesn’t have to reveal what it pays Ant and Dec, but the BBC has to open up Jeremy Vine’s pay packet. Watch as those rivals swoop in, Bake Off style, to lure away the BBC’s biggest names. The corporation has largely survived the recent charter review process intact. But what a way to treat one of Britain’s very few world-class cultural assets. (Full disclosure: I present The Long View , an occasional series on BBC Radio 4.) Instead of being nurtured, it is constantly hounded, buffeted from one renegotiation or review to the next, made constantly to fear for its future. The BBC’s critics stand over it, criticising its every move, undermining its self-confidence and micro-managing its every decision. What accounts for this war on a United Kingdom success story?

In part, it’s commercial interest. But the key motive’s ideological. What accounts for this bizarre, decades-old war on an institution that is, in fact, a British success story? Part of it is crude commercial interest. For Rupert Murdoch and others, the BBC is a direct competitor to be fought. But the key motive is ideological. The notion of a hugely successful, publicly funded broadcaster offends the doctrine of free-market supremacism. James Murdoch once declared that the only reliable guarantor of editorial quality is “profit”. Yet, the BBC stands as a rebuttal. It does not work for profit and yet it works. Brilliantly.

You would think conservatives, of all people, would want to protect such an institution. You’d think they would see the BBC as a venerable, rooted British institution that ain’t broke and does not need fixing. Yet, that traditional, Burkean conservatism is trumped by doctrinaire dogmatism: The BBC must be challenged at every turn because even though it works in practice, it does not work in theory. And it’s theory that counts. This jars with our conventional understanding of the role of the Right in Britain’s national life. Received wisdom holds that the Left is ideological, driven by theory, while the Right is practical, empirical and unimpressed by -isms. Indeed, in this view, -isms and -ologies are properly the province of those funny continentals: In Britain, and especially England, it’s what works that counts. The rhetoric may still nod in that direction.

May, like former British prime minister David Cameron before her, projects a suitably sceptical disdain for grandiose ideology, but look at the deeds rather than the words. May is promising the return of grammar schools not because there is any evidence that they improve social mobility — on the contrary, they do not — but because of a Conservative commitment to the principle of selection. The ideal matters more than the reality. And, of course, the big example is Brexit. The leaders of the European Union met last week in Bratislava, but there were only 27 of them. Britain had absented itself, even before it had formally started divorce proceedings.

Britain had a set-up the other nations envied. It was signed up to the bits that worked for it — like the single market — but comfortably out of the things that did not, such as the euro or the Schengen no-border area. Speak to those involved and they’re adamant: It will be impossible to negotiate anything like as good an arrangement for Britain once it is out. But, for the Brexiteering Right, all that Britain had was worth ditching, just for the abstract, illusory notion of unfettered sovereignty (along with old-style hard-covered, blue passports, if Nigel Farage’s parting speech is any guide).

For the many millions of Leave voters, there were, to be sure, a whole range of other motives — immigration chief among them. Yet, in the eyes of those who led the charge for Brexit it was principle, not practical reality, that mattered most.

Perhaps the key shift came with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a radical who managed to dress up a ferociously ideological programme as if it were no more than household common sense. But the pattern is undisguised now. From the BBC to schooling to Brexit, Britain is ruled by those ready to wreck what works, for the sake of dogma. They call themselves conservative, but they betray the name.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jonathan Freedland is a weekly columnist and writer for the Guardian. He has also published eight books, including six best-selling thrillers, the latest being The 3rd Woman.

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