Ageing, middle-class, right-wing: Meet our new lords of misrule

Progressive politics in Britain has now completely lost its sense of joy, and it leaves me hankering for a good old-fashioned moral panic stirred up by untamed youth

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Owing to unforeseen circumstances, the BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, may soon be in the market for a heart-warming comedy series that appeals to the mature demographic. Let me give him a little steer.

Set in the lovely rolling countryside of Yorkshire, this autumnal romp would star the hilarious curmudgeon Clarko, given to side-splitting outbursts of fury whenever he turns up late at the inn to find that a meagre platter of cold cuts has taken the place of his beloved sirloin steak with fondant potatoes, pan-fried wild mushrooms, grilled cherry tomatoes and a green peppercorn sauce.

As Clarko’s loyal sidekick, the eccentric, gentle Mayo perpetually makes lame excuses for his irascible chum. Visiting from the Cotswolds, the bumptious toff “Foggy” Cameron tries to ingratiate himself with boastful fibs. Past-it, out-of-touch and lost in nostalgic fantasies, the cast of “Last of the Summer Whine” stumble through their second childhoods from one pratfall to another. Banter, slapstick, pathos: the gang of Whiners has it all. Go on, Danny: commission them.

Whatever happens to Jeremy Clarkson, and Top Gear itself, this week’s sitcom in the Dales gave us a plotline from the heart of Britain now. Whether blows or words passed between the millionaire presenter and his BBC producer Oisin Tymon, their “fracas” grabs attention not for its causes but its consequences. While more than 800,000 people have called for Clarkson’s reinstatement after the BBC suspended him, we now know that the Prime Minister considers his friend and Oxfordshire constituent a “huge talent”. That gives us a glimpse into the PM’s cultural priorities. When did Cameron last lavish public praise on, say, the members of the Order of Merit, such as Tim Berners-Lee, Tom Stoppard, David Hockney, Norman Foster, Simon Rattle and Neil MacGregor?

Clarkson does have a real talent to amuse. Fall into the trap of po-faced disapproval and you simply mimic the stiff-necked pomposity of the puritans who always come off worse than the rascals in English comedy. Sheer silliness has a charm of its own. We should not be overawed by those Nora Batty-like politicians who proclaim that they have never seen Top Gear and then call for its anchor to be axed. At its ramshackle, picaresque best, which has little to do with the cutting edge of automotive technology, the programme reminds me of pals-on-the-spree farce in a very ancient vein – a kind of terrestrial, gasoline-fuelled offshoot of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

Besides, Falstaffian rapscallions, scallywags and buffoons have for centuries disgraced themselves so that strait-laced, iron-knickered killjoys can work themselves up into a lather of self-righteous indignation. In the end, the audience will always root for warm-blooded sin over cold-hearted sanctity. In Twelfth Night, the anti-puritan Shakespeare sets Sir Toby Belch against the buttoned-up Malvolio: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Just now, however, that antagonism feels like a fraud. Our cakes-and-ale – or perhaps sirloin-and-claret – camp represents not brave rebellion but smug authority. Contemplate the Toby Belch tendency in British public life today, from Clarkson himself through to Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. In them, militantly reactionary politics joins the worship of wealth accumulation and a sneery disdain for outsiders. In one squawk of hate after another, Farage’s party members show their true colours. Clarkson, time and again, voices his low opinion of the poor, pedestrian humanity that subsists beyond his comfort zone. And jolly Boris has revealed what he really thinks of the Londoners he oversees by trying to buy high-pressure water cannon to drench them into submission.

These crazy guys do love their power. Behind the driver’s gauntlet lies the iron fist. Clarkson’s rant in the Dales took the form of a classic “Do you know who I am?” hissy fit: a boss-class spasm of over-entitlement. The chief fault rests not in these feather-bedded pseudo-hedonists but the willingness of so many others to mistake their boorishness for bonhomie. How did such a bunch of rich, right-wing, middle-aged blokes corner the market in fun?

Look for an answer, and you may find that age and ideology entwine. Never happy with the untethered energy of the counter-culture, progressive politics in Britain has now completely lost its sense of joy. Paralysed by dread of the wrong word or the bad attitude, institutional radicals must check their thoughts, mind their language and keep to the strait and narrow path of rigid self-control. Wit, whimsy, even the merest hint of irony will drive you off message and into the pillory. As for an Ed Balls “joke”: focus-grouped, stress-tested and committee-revised, it really is no laughing matter. With an election in the offing, the heart sinks. If you fear giving offence above all, then it could be that your words will never give much delight either.

Among non-party free-thinkers, meanwhile, undigested theory can easily encroach on merry devilry. Russell Brand once had a delicious knack for winding up the powers that be. Now (witness a recent episode of his video bulletin The Trews), he sprays around half-baked sociology to explain, if not to excuse, the allure that the butchers, slavers and rapists of Isis have for some disaffected Western youth.

So our “alternative comedians” hector and sermonise, while the Tory-tinted celebs just have a lark. A curious switch has taken place. Progressives used to believe in the intrinsic goodness of human nature. Now, like the puritans of old, they vigilantly watch their own and others’ speech for signs of relapse into the original sins of pride, prejudice or greed. However well-meaning, this scrutiny may tie the tongue and dampen the spirit. In contrast, conservatives once thought that weak-willed humanity needed strict control. Now they happily blunder, tumble and dust themselves off to fight – or drive – another day. In Freudian terms, the left has become the camp of the super-ego: anxious, critical, punitive. In the opposite lane, say hello to the Id in the Reasonably Priced Car.

In Britain, our lords of misrule now flourish on the right. This licensed libido does have its exclusion clauses. A sexist double standard still applies. In the media, even “Loose Women” are kept on a much tighter rein. The Clarksonian carnival of middle-aged mischief remains, for the most part, a playground for the boys. And – the most telling aspect of this trend – for older boys alone.

During the half-century until the mid-2000s, one youth subculture after another shocked the seniors of Britain with its pleasure-driven irreverence. From teds to mods, hippies to punks, ravers to goths, the responsible nation woke up to a tabloid nightmare of pure, unfettered joy from the music, fashions and even the ideals of each successive rebel cult.

Moralists and magistrates vainly sought to stem the hormonal tide with their fatuous prohibitions and persecutions. My favourite specimen from a menagerie of nonsensical legalese has to be section 63 the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, aimed at the mobile rave scene. It wrote into statute a ban on outdoor sounds “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

In parliament, the press or on the bench, Malvolio could never stop the party. Yet, to some degree, those “repetitive beats” of youth insurgency did fade away. With Glastonbury in the vanguard of gentrification, the festival scene grew more corporate, more bourgeois, more respectable.

Symptomatically, the golden age of post-war subcultures had dwindled by the Noughties into the introspective melancholia of “emo”. Many research projects have argued that incessant life online renders the social-media generation more conformist, competitive and worry-prone. For kids in “Generation Rent”, debts soar, prospects shrink, and the hedonism of the baby boomers begins to look like the unaffordable luxury of a vanished age. Having snaffled the jobs, the houses and the pensions, will the Clarkson cohort forever run the disco too?

Not entirely. Club culture still thrives in ways that (so I’m reliably informed) might make the thinning hair of the Top Gear mob stand on end. All the same, the emblematic frolics of Jezza and his mates do capture an image of generational injustice. Plushly upholstered in historical good luck, the middle-aged mavericks accelerate away from their juniors into a pension-protected, mortgage-free Valhalla of badinage, booze – and juicy sirloins on demand.

Back in the day, Britain’s curtain-twitching tribes would regularly shudder in outrage at the thought of impudent yoof who simply wanted to have fun. The substances involved did not often take the form of top-of-the-range malbec or zinfandel. Pioneer malcontents would spit politically charged profanities at bland chat-show hosts, not antique racial slurs. And any headline-hogging “fracas” tended to break out among the riders of Vespas and Nortons on bank holiday promenades rather than after-hours in country-house hotels.

I hanker for a good old-fashioned moral panic stirred up by untamed youth. Bring on the tabloid exposés of formerly unknown pharmaceuticals – maybe along the line of the satirist Chris Morris’s “Cake”. Revive those busloads of clueless coppers on the trail of “repetitive beats” down muddy country lanes. Let’s see more frothing leaders about the slippery slope from all-black outfits and kohl eyeliner into depression, suicide and eternal damnation.

In short, we need another dangerous subculture that Clarkson and his overprivileged ilk will rush to stigmatise. Then normal service will have been resumed.