Plans to sell off the UK's treasures will soon return with a vengeance
Whatever happened to the scheme for covering London's streets with reflective paint to reduce the need for air-conditioning? It was my favourite millennium project, but the commissioners turned it down.The same thing seemed to have happened to the 'National Asset Register', my choice for book of the millennium. This 550-page inventory of national treasures was at one time going to be the catalogue for the government's mammoth sale of public assets - a £300 billion auction-room orgy of dis-accumulation on the theme of the disposal of the nation's treasures, as a ritual cleansing before passing through a time portal into the 21st century.
Confidently tipped, at the time, to be second only to the Millennium Dome as the highlight of the millennium festivities, instead the sale was scrapped at the last moment and then forgotten during the legal battle over whether or not there really had been a 'river of fire' on millennium night. But had it actually taken place, it might have attracted a star cast with none other than prime minister Tony Blair opening proceedings, by inviting a foreign head of state, possibly Germany's chancellor Schr÷der, to appraise one of the Foreign Office's priceless paintings. The chancellor would then have made a derisory offer:
'50 grand, cash!' Whereupon, Tony Blair would have stepped between the chancellor and the painting and cried: 'Not so fast, chancellor Schr÷der. Not while I head Her Majesty's government!' Once this encounter had been acted out with sundry other heads of state, the result would have been televised and thereafter no more would have been heard of the sale of national assets.
The register was clever because it plugged into the idea - promoted for years by The Antiques Roadshow - that real treasures are never really for sale. Owners of real assets may appear to consider selling them; in reality they only queue to get them valued because they hate the idea that they might be spending too much money on insurance. At the time of the millennium this was judged too abstract a concept for television, but now it has surfaced again with a simplifying twist. This time we are assured that the asset-sales really will take place.
And why not? By 2002, people will see nothing strange in artworks, buildings, monuments, squares, streets, parks and underground railways being flogged to the highest bidder, instead of having to be 'saved for the nation'.
Next year, when the 'National Asset Register' sale finally gets under way, it will be applauded as a brilliant example of millennial thinking. Jaded economists will brighten and liken it to one of those thousand-year waves that build up when national over-valuation reaches such a height that the ship of state becomes unstable.
Soon everything will start to go overboard: old masters, grand pianos, the family silver, stately homes. Asset-disposal will be everywhere as prices plummet, auctioneers become reckless and salerooms run wild. Far from being pedestrianised, Trafalgar Square will be sold off for affordable housing. Apsley House will be defurbished and turned into a police station and old army tanks will be bought and sold in Spitalfields. George III armchairs will be found in skips in Hatton Garden and formerly priceless Turkish carpets will be laid on zebra crossings to ease tired limbs. Anything in the line of infrastructure will go for a song. The Underground will be sold for a guinea to a man who wants to use it for cable television.
By Christmas 2002 the past will be all but gone: 'Sorry, mate - none left!' People will stare at one another and wonder what to do next - a sensation they have not experienced since childhood.