Books: Standards of Excellence - The New Elites by George Walden Penguin pounds 18.99 - After the costly lesson of the Millennium Dome, a look at the influence of Britain's new elites is timely, says design guru.

Books: Standards of Excellence - The New Elites by George Walden Penguin pounds 18.99 - After the costly lesson of the Millennium Dome, a look at the influence of Britain's new elites is timely, says design guru. - Until now, you won't have heard much in

by STEPHEN BAYLEY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Until now, you won't have heard much in favour of elitism. It's a taboo, just as sex was to the Victorians. In the same way that accepting female desire would have destabilised 19th-century Britain, so an explicit belief in excellence undermines the rackety structure, or rather the piss and wind, of Tony Blair's 'inclusive' New Britain.

Peter Mandelson dismissed me as an out-of-touch elitist because I wanted 'the best' in the Dome. Now, stuffed with patronising rubbish, the Dome is a popular catastrophe and a national disgrace. Tate Modern, on the other hand, is directed with unapologetic hauteur and is a fabulous success - a huge victory for democratic elitism. The Dome has been an expensive lesson but a valuable one. It turns on its head the nostrum that no-one ever went bust underestimating popular taste.

George Walden's latest book is timely; these questions are in the air. Tate Modern's success is in part explained by a public hunger for excellence having sensed the lowering mediocrity of the Dome. He is brilliant at cruelly accurate criticism. No-one who read his Sunday Telegraph take-down of Chris Smith will forget it. He accused the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's gormless minister of writing 'sanctimonious bilge ... populist drivel'; the 'triteness of his thoughts is matched only by the clumsiness of their expression'. That is an elitist view.

The New Elites does not fully attempt to distinguish between elites and elitism. Walden's subject is not so much the philosophical question about how we judge things, but about how powerful cliques exercise influence. Still, his implicit theme is that excellence exists, is definable and should be made universally available. This belief in standards, far more than fatigued nostrums about the redistribution of wealth or free false teeth, is what nowadays distinguishes 'right' from 'left'.

New Labour does not understand the difference between popular and populism, although Walden helps explain. Excellence can become popular, but that is not to say that what is popular is necessarily excellent. If popularity is the sole measure of approval, then Jeffrey Archer is a great novelist. As Walden points out, anti-elitism in the '60s was a liberating force; now it is boorish, constraining.

Yet in New Britain (the one with rising crime, illiterate TV and government by photo-call) 'elitism' is a scattergun term of contempt. This seems odd, as the basis of civilised progress is the pursuit of superior cultural, democratic or economic models. Distrust of excellence, as noted by Helmut Lehmann-Haupt in 1954, is a characteristic of all dictators. People like Blair cannot tolerate dissent or speculative thinking. This is why Soviet and Nazi art are so similar and so banal. Draw your own conclusions about the Dome.

Walden seeks to identify the new elites. They are not the old aristocracy. Neither Gates nor Murdoch is an elite. Instead, in Britain the new elite is the one controlling an education system with a mere 161 selective schools outside the private sector. This ruling elite has presided over the greatest educational disaster in Western history, Britain's 'comprehensive' (trans: inclusive) schools. The inmates are running the asylum.

Walden is not a barnacled old Tory seer. He is a very clever, rather cross contrarian, a free spirit. It is a melancholy reflection of standards in public life that this diplomat and minister has chosen to join what Frank Muir called the 'self-unemployed'. He is that rarest of things, an English intellectual.

Thoughtful people should be grateful for his brave attempt to confront a taboo. He exposes the inconsistency of the anti-elitists (who want superb surgeons and footballers, but jib at being told Shakespeare is better than Eastenders). Scariest of all for us inclusive citizens of class-free, egalitarian New Britain, Walden reminds us that the worst abuse of the common man comes from his noisiest champions.

Stephen Bayley was the Dome's first creative director. He quit after disagreements over its contents

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