05 June 2019
Politics For The Birds
Trump for PM
by J.R. Thomas
Last week a friend was kind enough to lend me a battered and curly article on one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, Cedric Price. “Who?” you are probably saying, unless an architect yourself. Indeed, a good question. This column, when not wearing the green eye-shade and pounding the battered portable to earn a modest crust, is often stepping back off pavements to admire obscure buildings – not always to admire, it should be said. And having survived the outraged traffic, going home to read up any relevant architectural tome. Not many of them mention Cedric Price; indeed his name barely registered before reading the article. In fact, unless reading the history of London Zoo, you are unlikely to find his name attached to any building.
Why London Zoo? Because almost the only building that Price designed and got built was the Snowdon Aviary – which, with true irony, does not even bear his name. So how come most modern architects working today will cite Price as one of the major influences on second half twentieth century architecture? Because, simple to say, because Price was one of the great thinkers of his profession, perhaps the greatest of all in an era when architecture has become a remarkably cerebral profession, a profession which has left its tradesman roots and soared into the upper reaches of academia. Price was a theorist, indeed seemed to resist building anything, almost sabotaging his own schemes. He was about ideas, about turning concepts round and round, upways and downwards. He wanted to examine reasons for any construction, how it might be done better, how it might be more flexible and serve a wider purpose, sit lightly on the ground, serve its community. From his radicalism, his constant attempts to challenge and reinvent architecture, came the modern style of buildings – frames with curtain walls, enormously flexible in how they are used, laid out, in their facades, in their height, floor levels, services. His memorial is perhaps most of all the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and from that great glass and steel oak have sprung many saplings. Yes, Richard Rogers was its architect and it is one of his greatest works, (or hideous insults to Paris if that be your leaning) but Rogers was a committed disciple of Price. That Price’s only built construction is for the birds, a building almost invisible, without form, floating among the trees, summarizes his most profound theorisation.
What is this doing in a column which is supposed to be vaguely about politics? Because, we humbly suggest, politics, like post war architecture, is long overdue for a major rethink. If this needs making clearer, the visit to the UK this week of a radical American political strategist should do the job. You had not noticed his arrival? The razzamatazz of the Donald Trump state visit? But Trump is the radical strategist! The Donald might be alarmed, annoyed, insulted even, to be addressed in such terms, but the truth is that he has rebuilt the American political landscape. (Whether his changes will stick is another matter.) The Democrats, like the Orleans Kings of France, seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and among the twenty two contenders for next years Presidential election nomination there are few candidates who listen to citizens concerns and irritations, and communicate in modern ways, directly and in the most simple terms – skills which Mr Trump has and are not to be despised. In a world of sound-bites, anti-egalitarianism, Twitter, and direct action, Mr Trump has captured a modern mood and American politics should never be the same again. Or to put it another way, if the Democrats and Mr T’s own Republicans do not mend their old fashioned cabalistic and elitist ways, before long another Donald will arise to dominate the scene.
In Britain? With a widely fought leadership campaign in the Conservative Party, one might expect a bit of vision, a few new ideas, a modicum of radicalism as to where a Tory government might lead and how it might reform a creaking political system. There’s a while to run yet, but in spite of Brexit differences, this is a battle of Tweedledees and Tweedledums, campaigns of people who are exhausted, who appear not to have read anything interesting for years, who would run from an original thought if it landed gently on their shoulders. The only reason most of them adduce for the support of their electorate is that without their particular talent the Shadow Of The Corbyn may fall upon the world. (Slightly honourable mention to Rory Stewart who at least shows signs of (a) being able to use technology to communicate effectively, and (b) knows that there is an electorate out in the streets and parks and is prepared to listen to them – a bit. )
On the opposite benches Mr Corbyn may have old policies, dating from 1917, but he has at least gone some way to reinvent how the Labour Party engages with part of the electorate. Labour can claim to have a mass membership to whom the leader listens and from whom he draws policy. But no points for direct communication – Jeremy usually has a careful think before engaging with anything not source-stamped “Momentum”, and to him his bicycle is as modern, and as fast, as he would like to be. The Labour Party was founded in radicalism but there is not much sign of intensive interrogation of how we live now and how politicians might engage with our futures, especially from the anti-Corbyn elements who seem more obsessed with demolishing his house than building anything new
Well, you may say, Nigel Farage, is he a Cedric Price of political systems? He certainly proclaims his wish to change the system, as do Change.Org.LeftnoRight.Goodbye.UK. Both claim to be looking at reinvention; Mr Farage arguably rather more than Mr Umunna and his friends. But neither seem likely to want much reinvention if they could actually get their hands on the steering wheel of power. Both have one major failing – they lack coherence in their supporter base – and that is probably enough of a conundrum to battle with for now. Trying to find new ways of sending the message is not a great idea until there is agreement as to what the message is. Indeed, Ms Soubry, until you know who is in your party.
The Lib-Dems ought to be the party of radical reinvention; potentially a moment has come for them, but as usual we can be pretty sure they will miss it. Their recent success in the local elections and in the Euro elections is not because the population were impressed by new ideas, dizzyingly original thinking, the reinvention of participatory democracy; it is simply that when the voters wish to give the old lot a bloody nose, and can’t bring themselves to vote for the other ones, they vote Liberal. When the moment has passed, they abandon the poor old third party, and revert to former allegiances. Sir Vince retires this summer, and maybe new ideas will spring forth from his successor. Maybe.
But perhaps Mr Trump does show us the way. He seems to run the USA easily enough. Maybe as an evening job, three days a week, he could take over as Tory Party leader. No more division, no more squabbling, read Twitter for policy ideas. The Donald for P.M!