I'm suspicious of words like 'tradition', precisely because they carry a dead weight of expectation

Tories on the right regard David Cameron as modern, but wearing shorts is not enough

Share

I have always felt peeved on behalf of the Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson's poem, she is shut in a tower, forbidden to look out of the window and expected to spend her life doing tapestry; she is also under a mysterious curse, which is absolutely the worst sort in my view. So it's a little disappointing, to say the least, that a painting of the Lady of Shalott floating to her death has come top of a poll to find the country's most popular paintings. From tomorrow, the picture by John William Waterhouse will appear on office buildings, shops and metro stations, as well as on the sides of buses and black cabs. It's part of the admirable Art Everywhere project, which will put 57 works of art on show at 22,000 sites up and down the country.

I don't know what it is about doomed women and water, but number two in the popular vote is another picture I can't stand, John Everett Millais's drippy (in all senses) Ophelia. I suppose it's further evidence of the British public's enduring love affair with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an enthusiasm which seems to me inexcusable in anyone who isn't a 14-year-old girl. Tennyson's poems were a favourite subject of the Pre-Raphaelites, who adored all that Arthurian nonsense about knights, ladies and unrequited love.

I don't know if the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is a fan of Tennyson, but in May he was the guest speaker at a dinner organised by something called the Traditional Britain Group, whose members describe themselves as "traditional Conservatives" who go in for "radical thinking". In fact, judging by the list of things they dislike, they're humourless right-wingers with an inflated sense of self-importance. Look at their mission statement: "With courage, pride and determination, the Traditional Britain Group says, 'No more! The ancient traditions, peoples and beliefs of these isles are worth preserving. There is an alternative for Britain. The fight back begins now!'"

Why Rees-Mogg agreed to speak to this bunch of fruitcakes, who boast about their loathing of equality, socialism, political correctness, multiculturalism and "cultural-Marxist legislation", I cannot imagine. But it's rebounded on him after the group's Facebook page made offensive remarks about Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager, and called for millions of people to be asked "to return to their natural homelands". On Friday, Rees-Mogg admitted he had made a mistake by attending the event, saying he was shocked by the views of the group's vice-president, Gregory Lauder-Frost.

It's weird that these risibly anti-modern movements pop up time and again in this country, and weirder that more or less mainstream politicians are willing to be associated with them. They have in common a hankering after a past that either never existed or was organised solely for the benefit of upper-middle-class white men. There isn't a single woman among the right-wing thinkers on the Traditional Britain Group's website. Indeed most of the thinkers are dead, with the exception of my friend Simon Heffer who was guest speaker at a dinner a few years ago. The impression that they're a bunch of whining posh blokes is deliciously confirmed by the CV of their president, Merlin Charles Sainthill Hanbury-Tracey, 7th Baron Sudeley, an Old Etonian who used to chair the Monday Club and is vice-chancellor of the International Monarchist League.

Class is still an issue in modern Britain but it's nothing like as rigid as in the Victorian or the Edwardian periods, when people were stuck in the class they were born in. Social mobility is one of the best things to come out of the 20th century and I'm suspicious of words like "tradition", precisely because they carry a dead weight of expectation. It was traditional in my father's family for the men to go down the pit, a job so dreadful that my grandfather swore none of his sons would follow in his footsteps. It was traditional for the women in my mother's family to go into domestic service, which is how my mother became a live-in servant when she left school at 14. My ancestors led incredibly hard lives and I'm thrilled that we no longer live in a culture which imposes low expectations on millions.

The joke is that "traditional" Conservatives on the right wing of the party regard David Cameron as dangerously modern, mistaking style for substance. There's more to modernity than wearing shorts and holidaying in Ibiza, and the prime minister is shamelessly dismantling fine institutions created after the Second World War. In that sense, he reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose chocolate-box sentimentality concealed a streak of ruthlessness.

When you see Ophelia, think of this: the model, Lizzie Siddal, almost died after posing for hours in a tin bath and the oil lamps that were supposed to keep the water warm went out. Later, her lover, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was so stricken by grief when she died that he buried the only copy of his poems in her grave. Seven years on, in 1869, he had second thoughts and dug her up. Perhaps traditional Britain wasn't such a nice place, after all.

politicalblonde.co.uk; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz