Alan Watkins: Polly, like many upper-class women, tends to think she knows best what people need

I have difficulty understanding her hostility to the entire Tory press. Ms Toynbee is in favour of taxing virtually everyone
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The Independent Online

Our greatest political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, warned his readers against becoming ensnared by metaphors. Typically (for he was writing in the 17th century), he promptly went on to provide a lively figure of speech of his own. It was about birds trapped by lime twigs. For myself, I find that the study of politics can be an arid activity, and every interruption is welcome to liven up the day.

I come a week late, though none the worse for that, to Ms Polly Toynbee's metaphor about poor people being at the back of the caravan and not only failing to catch up but left where they are, even regressing. One of Mr David Cameron's young men took up the illustration and contrasted it, to Winston Churchill's disadvantage, with the analogy of a ladder.

Well, ladders can be knocked over or pulled up, or people can fall off them, just as easily as other people can be left behind in the caravan. Perhaps this kind of thing does not carry us very far, as old Hobbes realised at the time. What it does do is provide what an old news editor of mine used to call a "talking point". Mr Cameron does not want to claim that there are too many poor people but he does want the political classes to talk about it and to give an impression of generalised benevolence.

Ms Toynbee, by contrast, is in favour of taxing not only the rich but virtually everyone. She wishes to follow this course not only to provide for the poor (as, after all, Mr Gordon Brown does) but for the good of their benefactors' immortal souls. As John Calvin was the prophet of capitalism, so Ms Toynbee is the patron saint of welfareism. Though I knew her late husband Peter Jenkins better (1934-92), I have always regarded her as occupying a position somewhere between that of an old acquaintance and a good friend.

But she is not on the left politically, even if she has attached herself to a variety of causes in her time. She possesses a strong element of knowing what is good for people rather better than they know themselves. There is a whole luxury of example to be found among the women of the English upper-middle classes, of whom Beatrice Webb was only one example.

With her late husband, she became a leading member of the newly formed Social Democratic Party. She was already quite famous, in a small way of business. For instance, the party had inaugurated a system of choosing parliamentary candidates by the entire local party. I asked an eminent human-rights lawyer who had been mentioned in connection with a seat in Lewisham, what his chances were of contesting the election.

"Not a hope," he said. "Everyone has heard of Polly Toynbee, but no one has ever heard of me."

Such were the defects of participatory democracy when the rejected candidate had spent his life lucratively arguing cases in the House of Lords and the Court of Appeal! Ms Toynbee duly obtained the nomination but failed to win the seat.

Five years later, the Social Democrats merged with the Liberals. The latter voted to merge by a large majority, but the SDP's margin was much narrower, roughly two to one. And Dr David Owen took his bat home; or, rather, he tried to carry on the game on his old ground, with himself continuing as captain.

There was even a conference of the SDP held under Dr Owen's leadership at Portsmouth. I know; I was there. Ms Toynbee stayed loyal to the doctor, as did several other leading women members. He was surrounded by a guard of admiring ladies, much as Cyril Connolly had been when he was editing Horizon magazine in the war.

What I find difficult to understand in all respects is not so much the loyalty which she extends to a few - say, Lord Owen 20 years ago, or Mr Brown today - as, rather, the hostility which she shows towards the entire Conservative press. Her attitude to the Daily Mail is perhaps more understandable. In the early years of Mr Tony Blair's government, when the influence of the third Lord Rothermere and Sir David English could still be felt, even though they had both recently died, two Labour-inclined women were being constantly discussed. One was Ms Cherie Booth; the other was Ms Toynbee.

It seems that the Mail's obsession with Ms Toynbee predated or was at any rate separate from any matters of a more personal nature. Mr Paul Dacre, the paper's editor, thought she was a destructive influence, in particular as a result of her spell as social affairs editor of the BBC. No doubt she has much to complain about and has been hard done by. Altogether, however, it is nothing personal with Ms Toynbee. Or if it is, as it is with the Mail - and for perfectly comprehensible reasons - then it has nothing whatever to do with Mr Rupert Murdoch.

I refer to him as the great proprietor. In the national newspapers, often in quite upmarket ones, I see him referred to constantly as "the media mogul". Many years ago, even before Mr Murdoch had appeared on the scene, I referred to somebody else in newspapers as a mogul. My then colleague Robert Pitman of the Sunday Express advised me never to use the word. "It's a Daily Mirror sort of word," he said disapprovingly. I have followed his advice ever since. It only goes to show - the effect which a wise word will produce if it is delivered at the right moment.

At all events, the great proprietor himself, Mr Murdoch, has as far as I know no animus towards Ms Toynbee. Nor (subject to the same limitation on my knowledge) do his editors have similar feelings about her. What it amounts to is a denial of reality on the part of Ms Toynbee. For it is simply not the case that the Conservative press is biased against the present government. As Mr Lawrence Price put it in his memoir of life at No 10, there were four participants in any decision emanating from Downing Street: Mr Blair, Mr Brown, Mr Murdoch and Mr Alastair Campbell.

Not only did Mr Blair journey to faraway places to address Mr Murdoch's minions, at considerable personal inconvenience and the taxpayers' expense: Mr Brown also, when he was given the opportunity, did exactly the same. Both The Sun and The Times were regularly supplied with appetising titbits and, sometimes, with more nourishing repasts. In the Hutton Inquiry and its aftermath, Mr Murdoch's newspapers invariably proved helpful when the government looked like finding itself in difficulties, which to be fair it rarely did.

I may be wrong, but the signs are that this happy and productive relationship will persist up to and including the election. Mr Brown is, it seems, an even more solid citizen than Mr Blair. Mr Murdoch's man-of-business, Mr Irwin Stelzer, continues to be impressed by Mr Brown; as indeed is Ms Toynbee. In the meantime, come off it, Polly!