There’s a lot of Tim Bell going around at the moment. Margaret Thatcher’s devoted spinmeister has a memoir coming out later this month (it is being serialised this week by the Daily Mail, which describes it in suitably breathless fashion as “deliciously gossipy”), and there he was, popping up on Radio 4’s Today programme, ostensibly lamenting the fact that people don’t just do what they’re told any longer.
We’ve gone from a deference society to a reference society, he said, and his conversation with James Naughtie sounded, through the haze of early morning, a little like two genial old buffers at the golf club bar agreeing how much better things were before the internet was invented.
Lord Bell is right, of course. The age of deference is over, and we see it the world over, and expressed in very different ways, from the democracy protesters in Hong Kong who are not prepared to accept Chinese hegemony to the patients who turn up at the GP’s office and won’t take the doctor’s word for anything because they’ve just Googled their symptoms. We challenge, and we don’t submit. That’s the way of the world today, and it’s a spirit that’s not going to be put back in its bottle any day soon.
Popular movements, fuelled by social media, clearly threaten the established order of things, and that doesn’t make Conservatives like Lord Bell particularly happy. At this point, in deference (yes, that’s right) to my colleague Matthew Norman, I should point out that Lord Bell (above) is one of the very few people in public life who has a conviction for masturbation. This happened in 1977 – he was fined £50 for conducting this act at his bathroom window in full view of female passers-by – and Norman is incapable of writing about Lord Bell without referring to this fact. I, however, think it is completely irrelevant, and barely worth mentioning.
On the radio, Lord Bell, who once represented the interests of the famously anti-democratic Sultan of Brunei, was explaining how the voice of the people – heard ever louder and clearer today – has forever been a significant factor in politics.
“The use of vox pop, I imagine,” he told the nation, “started with the Romans, which is why it’s called by a Latin name.” It was very early in the morning, but I’m pretty sure I heard him say that. This echo of Dan Quayle’s remark on a trip to South America – “I wish I’d done Latin at school so that I could converse with these people” – shouldn’t detract from the fact that Lord Bell has a point. He said that the pyramid of opinion, in which people of influence and power sat at the top and the general public were at the base, has been turned upside down. “People want to identify with those who are like them, and see what they think is important,” he added.
We look sideways rather upwards for influence. No more de haut en bas (a phrase which I believe originated in France). We don’t need the likes of Tim Bell, an experienced advertising and PR man, to tell us what to think any longer, and it was heartening to hear that he knows that.