When I started this blog I was told that I had to post entries at least every two weeks and from October to May, this proved no problem. However, once teaching had stopped it became much more difficult to hit the required note. Summer for me is a time for reflection of a kind ill suited to the diary form and I had decided that if there were any readers of my blog, and one or two had surfaced, they were going to have to cope with a summer recess just as long as Parliament’s. Even the New Labour outrage of forcing through the election of a Speaker without any support from the Conservatives had failed to wake me from my summer torpor.
However, just as the pulses were quickening and a new academic year starting I received an e-mail from a former student Matt Walker “Tonight I discovered your blog. As much as I’ve enjoyed reading it, please tell me they make you write it…please? I love the ferocity of it all, but you sound like a pissed-off ex-pat”. As Burns said it is a tremendous gift to see ourselves as others see us although it’s a gift which can often feel like a slap in the face. Matt had endeared himself to me as a student on my Pitt in London course when, after I had taught Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge (“Earth has not anything to show more fair”) he went down at dawn to Westminster to check on the poet’s observation. Indeed he was one of the brightest and sharpest students I had taught in my entire time at Pitt so I had to take him seriously.
The problem is, however, that I am pissed off. Very pissed off. The two passions of my life have been education and the media. Both have been ruined in my lifetime in my country by my generation, often by people who I have known personally. My generation was given everything and is handing on nothing. I hate New Labour with an unfortunately enduring passion but then so does nearly everybody that I know – the only difference is that I started early. In June 1998 to be precise when they sacked me. After mulling Matt’s e-mail for nearly two months I have decided that I will dedicate this blog for the next academic year to following the crimes of New Labour. To set the scene I will take us back 11 years to my sacking:
“It’s not working”, said the new Director of the British Film Institute brandishing the papers in his hand. That was all the explanation I ever received.
“So I’ve examined your contract and we can terminate at three month’s notice. I will write the formal letter today. You will leave the building forthwith”.
As my mouth opened and shut silently I must have ressembled a particularly dim goldfish. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all I had interrupted the partygoers revelling in my house as we celebrated the defeat of the Conservatives in the early morning of May 2nd 1997 to declare that New Labour would be the worst government for education and culture that Britain had ever seen. By that token I should have been delighted that New Labour were sacking me only a year after Blair took office.
I’d met Blair first at a London Weekend Television lunch in l992.
I was raising money for the new Master’s degree that I was setting up at the BFI and had been invited to LWT’s monthly wining and dining of the great and the good. Melvyn Bragg was there, Hale and Pace the comedians and , amongst others, David Willets and Tony Blair the new shadow Home secretary. Blair was already being touted as a possible future Labour leader but, much more important in this context, he was the man now in charge of Labour’s television policy.
Television was the medium that had opened up the world for me in the sixties: Hancock and Steptoe, the plays of Potter and Mercer, Monitor, That Was The Week That Was. For a London schoolboy this was an education even more important than the transatlantic rhythms of pop music or my school essays. And in the past decade it was Channel 4 who had been the bank of first resort for all the films that I’d produced. So the future of British television mattered to me. And that future was under threat, Thatcher’s Broadcasting Act of l990 was deliberately aimed at humbling one of the few institutions that had remained relatively unaffected by her economic policies. Stripped of its frills, it was an attempt to recast the regulatory mechanisms of television. For forty years tight government regulation had tied the very small number of broadcasters who enjoyed a monopoly of production to tight public service remits. That regulation was being dramatically loosened while the broadcasters were having to abandon their monopoly on production. It was classic Thatcherite neo-liberalism attempting to produce markets where there had been monopolies, breaking producer power in favour of the power of the consumer. The trouble is that great culture be it Attic tragedy, Elizabethan theatre, classic Hollywood or British television depended on just such producer monopolies. The historical trick was when producer monopolies had been linked to stiff competition as between the Chamberlain’s men and the Admiral’s men in Elizabethan London, the studios in classic Hollywood or the duopoly of ITV and BBC in Britain. However the existing monopoly in television was bound to be broken by satellite technology and the argument that the production base should be broadened was in essence a socialist argument. Would the new man have the kind of fresh imagination which could shape these new configurations so that they would produce even better television?
It was obvious that Blair was one of the new group of Labour politicians who were now taking control of the party. What would someone of my own generation, the first television generation, have to say about this most crucial of mediums? We had lunched well when our host, Brian Tesler asked the politicians to sing briefly for their supper. Willetts spoke first and delivered the standard Thatcherite message: globalization, international competition, changing world etc etc. It was the current neo-liberal rubbish but to give Willetts his due it was fluently delivered. Now it was Blair’s turn. So far, he had sat there looking like the head prefect dining with the masters. “Well” he said smiling in a self-deprecating manner which was, I think, calculated to be ingratiating , I’m afraid that I left my briefing papers in my office” Another smile. “ And I can’t remember what our policy is” Another smile “But I suppose it will be like all our other policies – just like the Conservatives but we’ll say it’s different”. Then he gave us what would soon become known as the full Bambi and simpered to a stop.
At one level I just wanted to look away; a train wreck is not a pretty sight. Forgetting one’s papers was hardly the most heinous of sins, although admitting it by way of excuse reminded me of all those incompetent lecturers who thought that they could save an abysmal lecture by apologizing beforehand. But the statement about imitating the Conservatives was abject, a simple abandonment of any political principle. Much worse though was the fact that Blair obviously had no interest in television or its development. He was sitting at the table of one of the greatest of the ITV companies surrounded by men liked Melvyn Bragg and Barry Cox who might well be enlisted for an alternative future to the one promised by Rupert Murdoch, and he had effectively told them to abandon all principle in favour of getting their snouts into the trough. Blair had obviously taken the slogan of French nineteenth century liberals to heart: Enrichessez vous or in plain English – “Do you sincerely want to be rich”. The future of television simply didn’t concern him.
These rather hazy recollections went at some speed. Thought is quick said Thomas Hobbes and if Thomas was right about nothing else, he was right about that. Back in the world of action, however, things were moving pretty slow. My main problem was that all the saliva in my mouth had suddenly dried up as though I was sitting in a super- efficient dentist’s chair. Worse my tongue seemed to have swelled to about three times its normal size. I was trying to speak but having severe doubts as to whether any comprehensible sound would emerge from a mouth not often lost for a word. I knew that I wanted to say something about education but I also knew I would be wasting my breath.
The second time I’d run into Blair had been in l996. After my intial meeting I had been astonished by his meteoric rise. In long retrospect, that LWT lunch may have been much more calculated than I had naively imagined, his only concern to assure the rich and powerful that Labour would be on their side. There was no doubt that his transformation of the Labour Party after John Smith’s death was the work of a consummate politician. Indeed his determination that Labour would say in public what it argued in private had briefly caught my imagination deadened by two decades of ever more irrelevant leftism.
We were organizing a conference on media and education at the National Film Theatre and Blair had agreed to use the occasion to make a policy speech on education. When he finally arrived, a mere 5 minutes before he was due to speak, I was astonished by the transformation from the figure of four years earlier. This wasn’t the head boy – this was the headmaster. The immaculately cut suit, the pristine shirt, the trailing flunkeys – power came off him in waves. And boy, was he prepared this time. The speech was well constructed and delivered with real energy and conviction. Unfortunately by the time he was finished I knew that New Labour was a completely empty vessel. It was Harold Wilson lite. The white hot heat of the technological revolution minus any commitment to socialism. There was nothing new and nothing that hadn’t already failed us for forty years. Education, apparently, was important because it was essential to a modern economy. All questions of what kind of education and how it was to be differentiated were simply ignored. Blair may or may not have used the slogan Education, Education, Education but it was already clear that he was an estate agent flogging a desirable property. Questions of social justice; a crusade for a better society; the political or spiritual role of education weren’t dismissed – they weren’t even discussed. Education for New Labour was about making more money – end of story.
Once again my rambling consciousness focused on the question at hand. I’d just been sacked – difficult to find the mot juste in reply. Suddenly I remembered that I was due to chair a seminar for the new Master’s degree which had taken its first students four years before. My tongue finally clicked into gear “ Well, I’m due to teach in the Boardroom at six o’clock this evening. I always honour my teaching commitments so if you want me out of the building before then you will have to summon the security guards to carry me out bodily”.
The new director looked slightly puzzled by this and a long silence ensued. You could almost see the attempt to calculate the adverse publicity against the desire to see me literally slung out of the building. I could understand why they loathed me. One of New Labour’s first decisions on taking office was to appoint Alan Parker as chairman of the British Film Institute. Parker, a director whose visual flair was routinely flawed by an imagination wedded to the most banal stereotypes, had loathed the British Film Institute with a public passion for over twenty years. His appointment signaled a government either criminally incompetent or determined to do away with the British Film Institute as it had existed for sixty years. Rumour already said that Parker and the sidekick that he had installed as director had simply taken interim appointments while they created a new industry body to which the British Film Institute would be subordinate and which they would run. Pollyanna that I am, I found it impossible to believe that a minister and two individuals had connived secretly to make huge policy decisions of such importance. Subsequent events were to prove rumour right but ostensibly Parker was engaged on turning the BFI, following new Labour’s watchword, into an educational institution. The trouble with this programme was that the BFI had always been an educational institution and it currently possessed an array of educational initiatives inspired with the vision of linking the most rigourous of traditional educations to the new audiovisual technologies. That was certainly not what new Labour meant by education, education, education. Parker’s vision of the BFI seemed to mean abandoning its historical role in the forefront of British education in order to become a glorified cheerleader for contemporary British cinema. I say “seemed” because there was no public debate of our much invoked educational role. I was told that my experiments were considered “elitist” – the ultimate New Labour boo word – but this was whispered gossip. Nobody dared to put this ridiculous charge in public because the simple truth was that they had no interest in education, a fact which any public debate would have made all too evident. So I could understand why they didn’t like me and for a brief moment I thought that they were going to make my day by ejecting me physically from an institution I had served with distinction for some thirteen years. The Director, who larded his conversation with City jargon, obviously fancied himself a square mile baron in red braces and was reluctant to give up the pleasure of treating me like a humbled banker. However, New Labour are nothing if not spinners and you would have to be a media idiot to physically prevent a teacher conducting his scheduled class.
The long silence came to an end and I was told that I could teach my class. I attempted to gather my thoughts as I returned to my office. I had to give my enemies some credit. They’d managed to surprise me. That my time at the Institute was at an end had been obvious from the moment of Parker’s appointment and indeed I was in the process of negotiating for a new job but I’d told my new employers that I had teaching commitments on the BFI’s graduate courses that I would have to honour. I had assumed that the BFI would take the same view. Indeed I had expected my just concluded interview to have been a civilized discussion as to how I would wind down these commitments, commitments not only to the students but to our partner institutions: Birkbeck College, the Architectural Association and the Tate Gallery.
But then probably I’d asked for it. Earlier that month I had sent a memo to the Board of Management commenting on a management consultant report that we had just received from KPMG. Even by the very low standards of such documents, this report had been a masterpiece of incompetence . For my own television department they had suggested that we should cut costs by making sure that when we interviewed film-makers like Scorsese, Tarantino or Tim Robbins that we should interview them at the same time and in the same place. A more comprehensive ignorance of the reality of Hollywood diaries would be hard to invent. In addition to listing a few more such idiocies, I had suggested that we could have saved a lot of taxpayer’s monies if the new director has simply repaired to The Wheatsheaf, the staff’s pub of choice, and spent a few lunchtimes hearing their views. Finally, I had inquired whether the Treasury rule which require competitive tendering for such consultancies had been complied with. I suspected that it was this final question was the “it” that was “not working”.
I was no sooner in the office than I was reaching for the phone trying to think of the most suitable paper to break the story. It seemed to me, particularly if there had been no competitive tendering, to promise a few juicy morsels. But as my hand reached out I heard clearly the very distinct tones of Lady Bracknell from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest: “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness”. I paused. The sad fact of the matter was that my many accomplishments to date were as nothing beside the media storm which I had provoked when I had been sacked twenty year earlier by the English Faculty of Cambridge for arguing that a modern literature degree must include the teaching of film. While there might be a pleasing symmetry in the fact that I was now being sacked by New Labour for arguing that the teaching of film and the teaching of literature should go hand in hand, I doubted whether the symmetry would be the major focus of the media attention. The headlines I feared would ring changes on “MacCabe sacked again in academic row” and I would be put in a permanent media pigeonhole.
In any case it would serve no purpose whatsoever to have a public row. This was a new government with an almost unprecedented mandate. If they wanted to close down an organization which didn’t suit their purposes, so what? And if they did it without any debate either before or after, so what again? Even a scandal around management consultants would be very small beer. And anyway I was exhausted from years of working as a middle rank civil servant and I didn’t trust my own ability to distinguish the wood from the trees. If the BFI had been holed beneath the waterline then I had been one of the officers on the bridge when it happened. It would take a good year or two before I could get any perspective on that
There was a much more important consideration. The style of my sacking was pure New Labour thuggery, but the real conflict went much deeper than that. My real argument was with the total failure to realize the Utopian dream of comprehensive education. As a schoolboy playing truant from school to canvass in the l964 and 1966 elections, I had thought that comprehensivisation would usher in a New Jerusalem. In fact, it had disenfranchised a generation of working class children from the highest levels of university education. In the past ten years I had felt that the real key to an emancipatory education was one in which traditional literacy and the production of audiovisual material went hand in hand. I had been astonished to find that any approach which stressed the possibility of teaching children to read and write was regarded with deep hostility by the educational research establishment. But to take an overview of the last forty years of British education, to try and understand what had been gained and what had been lost, above all to sketch a traditional humanist education in an age of mass media that would take me more than a year or two. I put the phone back in its cradle.