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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd end the war on drugs

Patrick Hennessey
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power