Proud to Be Ignorant
Fanu, James le, New Statesman (1996)
The Dome, like the poll tax, shows that our rulers are suspicious of experts. They should shed their prejudice, advises James le Fanu
It had, as for so many others, been a truly dreadful day. Retiring to bed, the same thought kept recurring: "How could they have got it so wrong?"
I could understand that they might not have wished to dwell on the past, on the achievements of the intrepid explorers who had circumnavigated the globe, or the great scientists and philosophers - Newton, Darwin, Hume and Locke - or even that supreme contribution to western civilisation - the welfare state. But there was scarcely an allusion to the contemporary British achievement. Who, walking around the Dome, would have realised that for 30 years the popular music from these islands has been universally recognised as being more creative and ingenious than that of anywhere else? And then, compounding the awe-inspiring banality was the equally impressive incompetence, exemplified by those snake-like queues leading to nothing important.
The following morning, enlightenment of a sort began to dawn. Reading the Letters page of the Telegraph, I learnt that offers of help from public-spirited citizens with expertise in putting on major public events had all been spurned. "In discussion with Jennie Page, chiefexecutive of the New Millennium Experience Company, I was astonished to find that not only had she no experience of what was involved," wrote Mr R A Cunningham from Sussex, "but seemed to think she knew the answers without assistance." And this was even though the Dome, it was hoped (wrongly as it turned out), would attract more visitors than the combined annual attendance of Alton Towers, Madame Tussaud's, the Tower of London and the Natural History Museum.
All this would suggest that the culture of ignorance, nourished during the Thatcher years, flourishes still. Its adherents mistrust those with specific skills or expertise, suspecting that they are interested only in feathering their own nests.
My first personal encounter with this culture of ignorance was the launch of Ken Clarke's blueprint for reforming the health service, "Working for Patients". The venue, appropriately enough, was a television studio somewhere in east London, to which bus loads of the new managerial class, charged with implementing "the most radical changes for 40 years", had been invited. It was a razzmatazz occasion, with strobe lights and piped music, but the vital document itself turned out to be so vacuous, it could almost have been a hoax. There was not the slightest attempt to identify the flaws of our estimable health service or to suggest ways of putting them right. Indeed, no rationale for the reforms was offered at all-simply the broad brushstrokes of a radical and untested notion - the "internal market" in health.
The sole representatives of the medical profession to have been consulted were a small cabal of right-wing doctors, including - it subsequently transpired - a heroin addict and a bankrupt private practitioner. …