Blair learns the limits of sucking up to the 'Mail'

Click to follow
Who it was that coined the phrase "Middle England" I am not sure. I suspect it was Mr Philip Oakes, the poet and novelist. I certainly think of it as a more or less defined place, roughly what we call the East Midlands, whose inhabitants display certain qualities of character, notably independence, a taciturnity verging on surliness and a dislike of ostentation. The Daily Mail has both adopted Middle England as its natural constituency and is acknowledged by others to be its true representative.

The place is slightly different from the one I had imagined. Its inhabitants (with the exception of scroungers, unmarried mothers and asylum seekers) are exclusively members of the middle class. This remains the case even if, by all the recognised standards of socio-economic grouping - occupation, income, education, what-have-you - they are nothing of the kind. In this world of makebelieve they pay school fees; subscribe to health insurance schemes, necessarily so, one may think, for they are in a condition of perpetual agitation about their state of health; and occasionally give dinner parties, for which helpful advice is available in abundance.They are part of Middle England, indeed, they are Middle England, and they live predominantly in the South East rather than in the Midlands.

There is nothing new about this way of constructing newspapers, by flattering their readers that they are better - socially, economically and, increasingly so in the case of the Mail, morally - than they really are.The old Daily Express pursued the same course, though its politics were more unpredictable and its articles livelier than are those of the Mail today. In a former age the New Statesman consistently over-estimated the knowledge of the readers and their capacity to absorb an article of 1,200 words.

But why should the Labour Party, why should a Labour government, choose to conduct itself on the same principles? Even Mr Philip Gould, who came up with the concept of Woking Man, does not presumably believe that society is as it is in the Mail fantasy. The obvious answer is that Mr Tony Blair wants the paper's support. It is probably the correct answer as well. He wants the support of the Sun too. Indeed, shortly before the election Mr Alastair Campbell confessed that it would be "wonderful" if the party could secure the support of both papers, as it duly proceeded to do.

The Sun's vision of this country is different from Mr Blair's. It is doubtful whether he approves of it. The voice of Middle England is more his line. His appearances (accompanied by his wife) at the assorted funerals and memorial services for the late Lord Rothermere and Sir David English were bizarre, when you come to think about them. It was not as if he knew either of the deceased specially well. They had met a few times; that is all. And the Mail, despite its half-hearted conversion before May 1997, had done its best over the years to damage the Labour Party in all kinds of ways, sometimes in ways that were none too scrupulous.

When Sydney Jacobson had his memorial service in October 1988, not one member of the Labour Party was present in an official capacity. Jacobson had been editor of the Daily Herald and the first editor of the Sun, when Hugh Cudlipp's intention was to make it ("The paper born of the age we live in") a popular purveyor of sweetness and light. As we know, it turned into something quite different under Mr Rupert Murdoch. Jacobson had done more for the Labour Party than Murdoch, Rothermere and English put together.

Admittedly Mr Blair cannot be blamed for Labour's non-representation at Jacobson's memorial service. The leader then was Mr Neil Kinnock. It was no more than a standard example of the party's customary lack of manners. There was no official representative, either, at the memorial service for the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner. I have yet to receive a letter or a note of any kind after entertaining a Labour minister or MP to lunch. Yet you do not have to go to Eton and Christ Church to learn to write a thank-you letter.

If Mr Blair's recent assiduous attendance at various obsequies for the rulers of the capitalist press was part of a scheme to make Labour not only new but polite as well, I should applaud. But I fear it was nothing of the kind. It was an attempt to suck up to the Daily Mail.

Similarly, should Mr Murdoch be so unfortunate as to take off for a better place between now and 2001-02 (though as far as I know he enjoys robust health), Westminster Abbey would be requisitioned, the Archbishop of Canterbury summoned, Mr Blair selected to read a lesson, give an address or, conceivably, both and Mr Luciano Pavarotti flown from Modena, or wherever it was he was resting his head at that moment, to sing some rousing numbers - all at the expense of the People's Party.

Does this sucking up do any good to New Labour, as Mr Blair now prefers to call the party? Mr Peter Hain was the first minister to break cover and to suggest it did not. Since then we have had the European election and the party's report into it. Apparently this says (from the version leaked to the papers) that Labour did as badly as it did not only because of the unpopularity of Europe, boredom and the Stalinist nature of the ballot papers but also because of the party's failure to improve public services, principally health and education, as it had promised to do before the election.

Apart from constitutional promises which Mr Blair has largely kept, they were virtually the only ones he made. He made a virtue of it. Unfortunately, not many people are interested in the constitution. It is rather like county cricket in this respect. Unlike cricket, however, it can affect their lives. So can the international monetary system. Not many people are interested in that, either, though it can affect their lives even more profoundly.

This conveniently brings us back to the euro. However much sucking up he goes in for between now and the election, it is unlikely that Mr Blair will be able to change the minds of the editors of the Mail and the Sun on this subject. If Mr Murdoch discovered some commercial advantage in our entry into the system, no doubt the Sun would speedily find some hitherto unrevealed benefit in our joining - just as it embraced the Millennium Dome when Sky Television did an about-turn. But on the whole this is unlikely. On their present positions and on Mr Blair's recent policy, their only logical course is to urge their readers to support Mr William Hague and to reject Mr Blair.

As we know, papers are not always or even usually logical. In 1983, for instance, the Daily Mirror continued to exhort its readers to vote Labour even though many of the party's policies at that time (notably of withdrawal from Europe) were opposed to what the paper had always stood for. It may be that they will simply prefer an unreconstructed Mr Blair to a newly optimistic Mr Hague. Mr Blair has always followed Disraeli's advice and laid on the flattery with a trowel. Even so, I do not think he will take the risk. For the past few weeks, on the euro, he has been reconstructing himself as busily as any beaver damming a stream.

Comments