Beatrix Campbell: People of Norfolk: say Aha-ha-ha!

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The Independent Online

There's none so pious as city councillors in search of an identity and corporate voices in search of investment. They can't take a joke. Together they form a dour coalition against the culture crimes of wit, surprise and the amiable pleasures of self-abasement.

Any city would be proud of Alan Partridge, the retro DJ who has done much for Norwich, perhaps as much as Saint Delia. Any Londoner should surely enjoy the endorsement of the capital's woes that is currently central to Manchester's self-promotion. When the CBI met in Manchester a few days ago they were ferried by taxis adorned with "Capital punishment". "It's grim down south" is the slogan of the North-west Development Agency.

But politicians and business leaders (often the same thing) have taken offence. Charles Joyce, a Norfolk county councillor, has tabled a motion lamenting the Partridge effect on the city's reputation. Andy Pearmain, a city councillor, has blamed it for Norwich's failure to win City of Culture 2008 status.

Partridge is Steve Coogan's alter ego, the pre-dawn DJ with the fatty back and fungoid feet, a talent for sexism and a sense of humour to rival those of Melanie Phillips or Gordon Brown. His resonance is nothing to do with Norwich and everything to do with dismal regional radio stations and ambitious men disappointed with their wives, secretaries, cars, hair, business (but redeemed by their love of Abba). Norwich, by contrast, has a reputation as an emblematic English city, rather white, almost cosmopolitan, a city that welcomed refugees from South American dictatorships, located not far from a marvellous coastline, with a thriving and progressive civic culture.

After acquiring a university its middle-class gained critical mass, and since the Sixties its intelligentsia and radical activist networks have brought energy and imagination to its local politics. For many years its best-known local politician was the eminent social historian Patricia Hollis. Norwich is an easy, active city that expresses well the revival of urbanism in England. Young fans of both the comedian and the city reckon, "It's great to hear something local – otherwise who'd have heard of Norwich?"

Alison King, leader of Norfolk county council, has invited Coogan to the city. Her colleague Cllr Celia Cameron says: "There's no problem. We could even do an Alan Partridge tourist trail featuring his favourite garage." Residents like both the place and Partridge. But their pleasure has been traduced by Messrs Joyce and Pearmain whose civic evangelism is directed at inward investment. Their message may be unheeded, nay witless, but they speak into a larger phenomenon.

London's mayor, hitherto so clever at communication, seems to have fallen for the lore and language of business. Manchester is not the new mecca, complained Ken Livingstone. The campaign was "a shocking abuse of their public funding," complained the London Development Agency chief executive, Michael Ward. But Manchester is a liveable city. Like several conurbations north of Watford, it no longer envies the big smoke. London is fabulous but hard work. Its interests cannot be defended at the expense of lesser powers in the provinces.

The mayor should have celebrated Manchester's cheek instead of complaining about it. The revival of this great northern city is testament both to its inventive popular cultures and to progressive civic renewal. London has long lacked the rapport between politics and popular culture that has supported Manchester's vigour.

London's defensive pieties expose the inter-city rivalries created by the competition culture. Michael Heseltine institutionalised it in the 1980s when he created City Challenge, forcing poor neighbourhoods to vie for shrinking regeneration funds. Since then competitions to sponsor sports and culture extravaganzas have become a capricious and sometimes cruel way to regenerate our cities. Pimping for business comes first.

When the Mayor of London talks like this then we know that our political language has lost its soul, as well as its wit. Forget the intelligent chidings of political correctness; political idiom has become the prisoner of corporate censorship.

Joan Smith returns next week