Taking our cue from the King of Middle England

At the outset of a dull election campaign, an academic historian argues that the most influential figure in British politics is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail
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The Independent Online
In terms of the substance of politics, as distinct from the candy floss of electioneering, the upcoming general election promises to be the most boring campaign since 1955, when Anthony Eden sleepwalked into Downing Street on the coat-tails of Sir Winston Churchill. Both main parties are now fighting on a very narrow social and political agenda, running scared of that tranche of voters who are customarily celebrated as Middle England.

The King of Middle England is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. Asked to name the most influential figure in British politics, I would go for Mr Dacre.

Broadcasters rarely underestimate their importance, but even they concede that newspapers have set the agenda for this election. Their job is to catch the politician when he or she departs from the script. But it's the script itself that matters, and that has been influenced by the Daily Mail to a degree unusual in the annals of modern media power.

Tony Blair's press officer Alastair Campbell describes the Daily Mail and Sun as the two "most influential" papers - meaning that they are the two from which the politicians have most to fear. Unlike the Sun, however, both parties respect the Mail's comparatively intelligent readership. Many suspect that the Sun's daily diet of sex and lottery stories significantly dilutes its political message even when the paper is at its most strident, while nobody is prepared to say the same about the Mail.

Both political parties have spent the last couple of years cultivating the Mail, its editor, and its proprietor, Lord Rothermere. One of the significant moments in Tony Blair's road to respectability was when Lord Rothermere announced that he would not object if the Mail came out for Labour. It seemed at the time to have more solid political significance than his journey to parlay with Rupert Murdoch off the coast of Queensland.

Both parties hone their policies to suit the Mail's readership, particularly in the vital areas of education, and law and order. Indeed, Labour has been even more "pro-active" - as the spin-doctors call it - than the Tories. So just as Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, regularly runs his latest policies past the Mail first, so now does Jack Straw's law and order team for Labour. (Mr Straw has the advantage of having been aware of Mr Dacre when they were both left-wing undergraduates at Leeds University in the 1970s.) Similarly, David Blunkett and the shadow education team have run their policies past the Mail first, and some of Blunkett's articles have been ghost-written in-house.

Labour is coy about the connection with what is seen as a staunchly pro- Tory paper, but because of its dominant position in the mid-market, the Mail represents a constituency that Labour cannot afford to ignore. The Sun famously declared after the 1992 election that it was they "wot won it". It seems that this time round, Labour has pre-empted a similar victory by negotiating terms before the election has even begun.

WHILE MOST of the press has struggled to survive during the 1990s, the Daily Mail has enjoyed a period of commercial and political success almost unparalleled in its hundred-year history. In recent years the paper has benefited from the near-demise of its traditional rival, the Daily Express, as well as the closure of a more recent competitor, Today. It now has a virtual monopoly of the readership which will largely decide the next election.

Readers have shifted from these two papers in numbers. In 1992, the Mail's circulation was 1.8 million, whereas the Express's was 1.5 million. Today, the Mail's circulation is just over 2 million, while the Express has declined to 1.2 million. It has a readership of just under 5 million. The Mail also sells 1 million copies more, to a fairly similar readership, than its other great Tory rival, the Daily Telegraph.

Many of its readers - 1,724,000 - are C1s, with almost a million C2s. Since the 1960s these are the people who decide who lives in Downing Street. The Sun is still important, but its circulation has only held steady since 1992, and it has lost the momentum that it gained in the 1980s under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie. It is the Mail that has "the big mo". For the politicians, the Mail has become the bell-wether of the vital C1s and C2s.

The main reason for the Mail's influence is its editorial character, which offers a brand of moral and political certainty that other papers do not even aspire to. It is the morality of the suburbs, of family values and garden shrubs, and what engages the Mail more than anything else is what it sees as the constant assault on those values from social security scroungers, illegal immigrants, child criminals, liberal churchmen, Brussels bureaucrats and all the other usual suspects. It is often said that the Mail is rarely first with the news, but it is always the first to put the right spin on the news. It thrives on the scoop of interpretation.

The paper knows the agenda of invincible green suburb, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion so well that it hardly has to think about it. Many of its headlines pass from first edition to cliche without any period of understanding in between. This year's Reith lecturer, the American Professor Patricia Williams, was denounced before she had even broadcast as "a militant black feminist who thinks all whites are racist and that the family is wrong". Paul Johnson's attack on Michael Grade of Channel 4 as the "pornographer-in-chief" enframed his public reputation forever. The Mail's headlines proclaim its views in uncompromising, lurid fashion and help to shape the national agenda in a way that the Sun did at the height of its powers in the mid-1980s. With such finely-tuned reflexes, the Mail has almost become a parody of itself - but it has become the most quoted paper in Britain.

THE irony is that the England of the Daily Mail barely exists anymore, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone. As one Mail journalist explained to me, it doesn't worry the readers that their paper sets moral standards that they do not live up to, but it is important that they know what standards their children should live up to. This might be an organised hypocrisy, but is what makes the Mail readership so important for politicians, as it represents a view of the world which people would like to return to even as it drifts out of reach. It is, in the truest sense of the word, deeply reactionary.

The architect of the Mail's present success is Paul Dacre, the 48-year- old son of a journalist. His father worked for the Sunday Express and like many of his father's contemporaries on the Express, Mr Dacre has moved nimbly along the political spectrum. (He was a correspondent in New York in the 1980s and says that he went a socialist and came back a capitalist.) The paper's editorial strength reflects his own self-confidence in the paper's agenda. Although he has been offered the editorships of both the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and has recently been outed as an opera lover, he fervently believes in the paper's narrow-minded, often philistine approach to life and there's nothing the paper enjoys more than tweaking the noses of the dreaded chattering classes and their hirelings at the BBC. Unlike other editors, Mr Dacre is not vain enough to need the usual socialising with the great and the good that his job entitles him to, nor does he mix with the Tory establishment. Indeed, he tries to avoid any personal exposure to the political classes. Brian Mawhinney, Conservative Party chairman, is occasionally fitted into his schedule, but only on sufferance. There was a time when the Mail was the lapdog of the Conservative Party; no more. If anything, the Conservative Party now dances to the tune of Paul Dacre.

Over the past few years, the paper has run several campaigns which have clearly shifted opinion in the party. With its constant attacks on Europe, it has been partly responsible for moving the party in a Euro-sceptic direction. It ran a very high profile and successful campaign against the Government's divorce Bill, on which the Government eventually had to back down, and contributed significantly to the campaign to secure the release of paratrooper Lee Clegg in 1995, jailed for the murder of a civilian at an Army checkpoint in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, it has championed an uncompromisingly conservative approach to law and order and education. It has been the paper's attacks on liberal attitudes in these two areas that has assured it the ear of the Tories and Labour. But since the Mail's readership is fed a daily diet of crime and violence that makes a Quentin Tarantino movie look like Gone With The Wind, it's difficult to see how its readers could respond with anything other than the simplest of reflexes; lock 'em up, as Mr Howard fully intends to do.

Labour has used the Mail in a similar way and courted its readers, while Mr Dacre has been impressed by the new conservatism and sobriety of the party's social agenda. Unusually for the Mail, its editor has also enjoyed a comparatively amicable relationship with Labour politicians, particularly Messrs Straw and Blair, although Mr Dacre's regard for Mr Blair is said to be cooling as he perceives a weakening in Mr Blair's moral conservatism as the election looms. But he has certainly been on better terms with Mr Blair than with John Major. As Messrs Straw and Howard try to outdo each other as a one-man committee of public safety, they are both angling for the Mail's readers. Labour has spurned much of its liberal past to try and break into Mailland, leaving many of its traditional supporters wondering what has happened to the party which has pioneered progressive social legislation since the 1960s.

The Mail will not recommend its readers to vote Labour but neither will the paper try to crucify Labour as on past occasions, and Labour will have done enough to convince some vital Mail readers that it is not the permissive communist subversive of previous Mail demonology. In fact, the two parties now offer less choice than for decades. For those who see politics and life as involving a little more complexity and imagination than the reductionist and archaic certainties of the Daily Mail, most of the election can be safely missed. London produces some of the most far-sighted and innovative policy thinking from more think-tanks, research institutes and the rest than any other capital in Europe, yet none of this will be debated, let alone voted on. The politicians think they have the key to the election in Mailland, and if you don't want to live there during the run-up to polling day, then I suggest you tune out, turn off and drop out.

The writer teaches history at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and is the author of 'David Astor and the Observer' and 'Thinking the Unthinkable'