So, what does a liberal look like in 2013?

As our passion for Alan Partridge suggests, Seventies chic is everywhere. But you have to go back much further to find a time when enemies of the state ruled the roost
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Reading about the Prime Minister's proposals to limit access to online pornography, while casting a fond and reminiscent glance at certain other proposals (now mysteriously shelved) for minimum levels of alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes, I realised once again quite how difficult it is, here in the storm-wracked early 21st century, to be a liberal. Not, I should hastily add, a member of the Liberal Party – a yet more desperate refuge in the current political climate – but the kind of person who believes in individual autonomy, in freedom of expression and the ability of ordinary people to live their lives according to their own consciences and with as little state interference as possible.

In strict historical terms, it has been difficult to be a liberal for about the last three-quarters of a century. The novels of such 1950s writers as Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury are awash with rueful analyses of just how uncomfortable a place the immediately postwar world had become for pluralism and scepticism and disinterestedness, and all the good brave causes that perished on the outbreak of the Second World War and could never really be resuscitated once it was over. Professor Treece in Bradbury's Eating People is Wrong (1959) looks back wistfully to his hot 1930s youth, "those busy days when to be a liberal was to be something, and people other than liberals knew what liberals were".

So how is the average modern liberal supposed to react to an information system which has the potential to corrupt, or at least demoralise, both his children and himself? He, or she, might reasonably wonder whether a legally enforced cordon sanitaire separating them from the waves of hot action that splash unchecked along the boulevards of the superhighway isn't some kind of basic human right, only to be told by technocrats that this is the price you have to pay for all the undeniable benefits that cyberspace brings.

He might also suspect that many of the uses to which technology is currently put are fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic, and that most of the gadgetry supposed to encourage "choice" and "freedom" is actually there to constrain and subjugate the people who buy into it, detach them from their individual selves and marinate them in the communal soup.

It is the same with the proposals to stop or at any rate lessen the prospect of people drinking and smoking themselves to death, on which the Government has now back-tracked for reasons that are a third to do with genuine libertarian principle, a third to do with the somewhat narrower political imperative to avoid talk of "nanny states", and a third to do with the habitual Tory urge to suck up to big business.

I never read references to the "nanny state" without thinking of the family who sit 50 yards away from me at Norwich City's Carrow Road football ground, the joint weight of whose parental duo must be all of 40 stone and whose calorie-drenched children are clearly going the same way. An authentic liberal, you feel, confronted with the terrifying spectacle of this plump quartet up-ending flagons of Coke in the sunshine, would think that to ignore the sight of two small children having their constitutions wrecked is simply a denial of social responsibility.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Cameron porn proposals, the newspapers are full of smug and rather pious letters alleging first, that nothing can be done and, second, that freedom of speech is in peril. No doubt the people who wrote them imagine themselves to be exemplary liberals, but all they are really doing is peddling a kind of authoritarianism by default.


Not having been able to gain entry to the Norwich premiere of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, I took solace in reports of the film's soundtrack, a choice selection of recherché 1970s pop including Climax Blues Band's "Couldn't Get It Right" and Sparks' immortal "Number One Song in Heaven". The director, Declan Lowney, informed the Independent that Steve Coogan, his leading man, "came up with a lot of these obscure soundtrack choices at the last minute. He really knows his music."

The unstoppable rise of what might be called Seventies chic, of which our obsession with Alan Partridge is a particularly salient example, has a profound historical importance, for it reflects a view of the period increasingly taken by professional historians. This is that the 1970s are by far the most significant of the postwar decades: at once a disintegrating bridge between the certainties of the 1950s and the stark economic choices that lay ahead, the end of consensus and the seed-bed for most of the social, economic and indeed moral problems that beset us 40 years later.

But there is more to it even than this. The historian David Kynaston once remarked that the key rites of the 1960s, as conceived by the popular imagination (that is funny clothes, free love and fais ce que voudras), were really only enacted in a couple of square miles of central London. Their effects, consequently, were properly felt in the following decade, when certain people began to suspect that they been left behind by the tides of history and adjusted their behaviour accordingly, while certain other people were merely outraged by the behavioural changes they imagined to be taking place.

The world of literature's revolt against the 1960s began with the rise of the "anti-Sixties novel", a genre probably inaugurated by Kingsley Amis's I Want It Now (1968). In politics, the fight-back began with the election of Mrs Thatcher to the Tory leadership. In music, the assault on the Age of the Aquarius begins with the Sex Pistols. Each of these rebellions – to return to the preceding paragraphs – was defiantly anti-liberal, or rather bitterly opposed to the bastardised version of liberalism to which Sixties self-expression nailed its standard. Alan Partridge is more of a cultural talisman than he knows.