The hidden victim of Chris Huhne's downfall

It was a blow for 'progressive' politics apparently, but is there such a thing any more? Plus, Wodehouse's war, and other Englishmen abroad
  • @djtaylorwriter

Of all the obituaries pronounced over the career of Chris Huhne, perhaps the most intriguing was the judgement that his enforced removal from public life was a tragedy for "progressive politics". This raised the interesting questions of what, in a notoriously backward-looking age, progressive politics consist of these days, and how you go about practising them here in 2013.

Back in the late 1970s, the adjective "progressive" was an absolutely fatal garnish. Applied to rock music, it meant men in steeple hats yodelling about elves. Applied to education, it meant packing children into comprehensive schools with all the respect for individual sensibilities extended to pilchards stuffed in a tin. There was even a progressive, in this case practically Whiggish, view of modern literature, whose critics saw it advancing to some ideal representational state by way of formal experiment or rapt immersion in the agendas of the women's movement.

To be a progressive politician in those far-off days did not necessarily mean that you belonged to the Labour Party. In fact most Labour parliamentarians were either about as reactionary as it was possible to be or, like the lefty tribunes hard at work to manipulate the block vote, cultivated peculiar notions of democracy. No, "progressive" meant being keen on Europe, on prison reform, say, on minority causes, on an egalitarianism that could stop several steps on the wrong side of positive discrimination. Good brave causes, all of them, and – save in certain rarefied parts of the country – electoral suicide.

What makes a progressive politician now? At a guess, someone who tries to balance individual rights with communal responsibilities, who insists that the disadvantaged do not axiomatically bring disadvantage upon themselves and who believes that while its citizens should be allowed as much freedom as is compatible with not inconveniencing other people, there are times when the state ought to interfere as rigorously as possible. The difficulty about being a progressive politician, alas, is that while examples exist in each of the main parties any kind of collective enterprise will always be stymied by the political process. Judged by these exacting criteria, the Prime Minister is a progressive of a kind – see his attempts to bring in minimum alcohol pricing to the dismay of his Cabinet colleagues. As for Ed Miliband, the jury is still out.


Arts story of the week was the news that BBC4 is shortly to broadcast a drama entitled Wodehouse in Exile. Written by Nigel Williams, and sztarring Tim Pigott-Smith as the man himself and the inimitable Zoe Wanamaker as his wife Ethel, the piece is designed to exonerate Wodehouse from the charges of treason that followed his wartime appearances on Nazi radio.

Captured by the Germans when they rolled into Le Touquet in 1940, Wodehouse was at first interned in relatively spartan conditions, but then spirited off to Berlin and invited to broadcast to the folks at home. His playful remarks about war's privations ("There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading" etc) caused great offence in Blitz-torn Britain and it took a determined campaign by fellow writers such as George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh to counter accusations of treachery in the popular press.

Wodehouse's defenders always stress his political naivety and his almost complete detachment from the realities of the mid-century world. This is true, of course, and yet his early work is not always as disengaged as it seems. Psmith in the City (1910), for example, has some pointed things to say about the commercial juggernaut to which the young Wodehouse briefly and reluctantly found himself hitched, while the hero of Psmith, Journalist (1915), engaged as subeditor on a New York weekly, embarks on a campaign against slum housing. On the other hand, when confronted with the advancing Wehrmacht, Wodehouse's frivolity does harbour a sting in its tail. He described the soldiers marching over his lawn as "a fine body of men, rather prettily dressed in green, carrying machine-guns".


One of the most distressing things about national stereotypes, alas, is the way in which certain nationalities almost fall over themselves in their efforts to play up to them. And so last week's news that, in a poll conducted by the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, 61 per cent of respondents wanted to see a "strong man" at the helm, while 42 per cent agreed with the proposition that "life wasn't all bad under the Nazis", was entirely predictable. I experienced exactly the same kind of call and response when I recently walked into a Parisian supermarket, despaired of the inadequacies of the queueing system, and, on hearing a dog bark three aisles away, remarked in quite a loud voice that clearly something had escaped from the meat counter.

Just occasionally, on the other hand, a national characteristic will rise up to confound a demographic assumption. I was sitting on a flight back from Belfast not long ago when three likely lads armed with copies of men's magazines arrived on the seats behind. My heart sank at the prospect of an hour and a half's worth of cheery banter. But no, the boys talked soberly about child-rearing and the respect they felt for their fathers. This was Ireland, you see, and they do things differently there.