Composer and writer Howard Goodall explains how the Deputy Prime Minister’s patronising comments about Angela Rayner undermine the Government’s own stated principles about the role of music in education and empowerment
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Last week the government unveiled its ‘refreshed’ National Plan for Music Education, after a fairly long period of consultation and deliberation, led by a committee of sector experts chaired by the Conservative peer Baroness Fleet, Veronica Wadley.
Unfortunately, any potential fanfare of its announcement was drowned out by another story relating to music that dominated headlines all week, a story that even made it to (Deputy) Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.
It began with a repulsively patronising article in the Telegraph (of which Baroness Fleet was previously Deputy Editor, as it happens) penned by Christopher Hope, mocking Angela Rayner MP for attending The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne, with – horror of horrors- a glass of what might have been champagne in her hand.
In the kind of feeble ‘gotcha’ that tabloids were fond of using to lampoon Labour politicians in the 1960s and 70s, Hope suggests that someone born in Stockport, who left her (comprehensive) school at 16 when she became a single mum, would somehow be betraying her working-class roots – or her solidarity with striking railway workers – by the simple act of turning up at an opera house known for its high artistic standards and delightful gardens.
What the article revealed was the kind of snobbery that has become once again tediously commonplace thanks to the Bullingdonisation of Britain, since 2010. Working-class people going to the opera? Whatever next, a person on Universal Credit mistakenly wandering into the Tate? A mop-haired percussionist from Liverpool inadvertently admitted to the Royal Academy of Music?
The Hangover of Bullingdon Club BritainPeter Jukes
Yet not one, but two ministers in the Daily Telegraph’s favourite government prefaced the new National Plan for Music Education with worthy ringing phrases such as “..(music) must not be the preserve of the privileged few..’”. “In our refreshed plan, which sets out our vision to 2030, we place a renewed emphasis on opportunities for all…”
I agree with these sentiments. Music is for everybody. The subject matter of the most popular operas have one thing in common: with heightened emotion and passionate music, they portray the struggles, tragedies and triumphs of ordinary people.
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro made an aristocratic audience including the Emperor in Vienna sit through an adaptation of Beaumarchais’ (at that time) banned play which deliberately satirised an out-of-touch ruling elite of bullies, cheats and sexual predators being trounced by the greater wit and guile of the people who worked for them. It could have been written yesterday.
The Telegraph article prompted a backlash. The British people aren’t as bigoted or as blinkered in their assumptions as some Tories think they are. Millions of Britons like the arts. Tickets for gigs or operas or musicals may be a few bob but they’re not so very different in price, sometimes cheaper, than tickets to Premier League matches. People from less-well-off homes do value and participate in music, dance, and theatre, in large numbers.
You’d have thought the Deputy Prime Minister, sun-lounge-fancier Dominic Raab MP, would have the antenna to pick up that the criticism of his opposite number in Parliament going to the opera had not really hit the Culture Wars jackpot Telegraph writer Christopher Hope, the man whose idea the Brexit 50p was, let’s remind ourselves, had hoped it might.
You’d think Raab would have carefully avoided the subject at PMQs. In fact, Raab, distracted by the headlights of the oncoming vehicle, ran head first into it and had another go at Ms Rayner about Figarogate, as if she’d now be reduced to silence by his masterful, Count Almaviva-like putdown. (He is, after all, something of an expert in reducing things – his constituency majority of 28,000 votes in the 2015 General Election cleverly reduced to 2,743 in 2019, for example.)
Perhaps there was a chorus of Telegraph readers out there, cheering on his broken-record repeat of the quip that ‘socialists’ aren’t allowed to sip champagne, visit a beautiful stately home, or listen to Mozart. Perhaps. Social media, on the other hand, was immediately filled with working-class people apologising for their interest in the arts, begging the deputy prime minister’s pardon for straying away from their allotted station in life.
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Speaking as someone who writes musical theatre I could not be happier that a deputy leader of one of our major political parties takes an interest in the arts. Music is one of the things we do really well in Britain, as is often said, including by government ministers when not circumscribing what music certain people are supposed to enjoy.
The thing, though, fellow Brits, is this: the musical ecology is an organic whole. Musicians are musicians, we respect each other’s work in whatever field of music we ply our trade. We don’t, by and large, waste our time with a tribal class war amongst different genres and sub-sections of the art.
So let’s drop the antiquated idea that there’s ‘the peoples’ pop music and ‘the posh folks’ classical music: there’s endeavour, skill, whimsy, love, redemption, excitement, sadness and joy in all music. Musicians of all styles come from all kinds of backgrounds and we make music for all people, whatever the path they’ve taken to get there.
It’s 2022, for heaven’s sake. Mozart, who died in 1791, has got a better handle on all this than Dominic Raab, born in 1974, the year Helen Reddy got to no.1 in the USA with a song about a shy young woman’s journey to freedom and empowerment, Angie Baby.