D J Taylor: Final twist to the riots, and to Mrs Simpson

Scots show more care for local communities, while the Duchess, apparently, cared for Edward enough to do a death-bed dance

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To monitor the progress of the riots from the vantage point of a holiday cottage to the west of Loch Ness (nearer, that is, than some politicians) is to be struck by a profound national divide.

There has – so far – been no trouble in Scotland. The Glasgow teenager who took to Facebook encouraging the crowds to assemble had his cover blown, his page shut down, and his person apprehended within a few hours. TV screens, meanwhile, have been full of academics soberly expounding the thesis that Scotland is, historically, a more "disciplined" society, in which spontaneous explosions of mass criminality have no place. Amid talk of more authentic and self-sustaining communities, there's been very little in the way of schadenfreude, although Strathclyde Police made a point of offering to send men south if needed.

One would happily write most of this off as that time-honoured Scottish habit of making injurious comparisons with the milk-and-water sassenachs beyond the border, were it not for the fact that the claim of a self-sustaining local community is patently true. Whereas a Co-operative store notice board in an English town is a glorified Exchange and Mart, in the Scottish Highlands it serves as a communal message board, advertising births, marriages and deaths and expressions of gratitude from the youth club. Emerging out of the forests into some sequestered loch-side hamlet you are quite likely to find a village hall, staffed by volunteers, selling sandwiches while some deedy local entertainer delivers a selection of country and western classics in the background.

Undoubtedly, much of this is got up to impress the tourists, but a fair part stems simply from a desire to be of use. Ironically enough, the part of the country that seems keenest on the principles of the Prime Minister's "Big Society" is the one most naturally hostile to Conservatism.

***

Reports from early screenings of WE, Madonna's eagerly awaited biopic of the romance between Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson, starring the wonderful Andrea Riseborough, suggest that a certain amount of historical inaccuracy is at large amid the lush settings. In particular, there have been murmurings of disquiet over a scene in which Mrs S "dances the twist for Edward on his death-bed" – quite an achievement for a woman in her late 70s – and another in which the Duke spikes guests' drinks with the aim of making things go with a swing.

At this point in the proceedings – both protagonists long dead, their iniquities long forgotten – there is no use in complaining about this kind of tampering with the past. One of the curious things about the 20th century's "iconic" figures, after all, is how quickly they begin to detach themselves from historical reality and go sailing off into an almost mythological landscape in which practically anything can be believed about them.

In much the same way, it was widely believed that in 1940, when Winston Churchill made his celebrated speech about fighting an invading enemy on the beaches, he interpolated the words "we'll throw bottles at the buggers. It's about all we've got left", only for them to be wiped by a BBC censor. In fact, Churchill said nothing of the sort, but like Mrs Simpson executing her totentanz at the Duke's bedside, it was exactly the sort of bracing intervention of which an admiring public thought him capable.

***

Philip Beresford, compiler of The Sunday Times rich list, has come up with an interesting variation on his annual moneybags' roster by revealing the existence of what he calls the "Skillionaires' Club" – 100 people who contrived to make themselves fortunes without the advantage of asingle educational qualification. To scan Mr Beresford's list – it include Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers, and Charan Gill (inset left), the Indian restaurant tycoon turned property investor – is to note how dramatically the idea of the "self-made man" has changed in the past 30 or 40 years.

Back in the early 1970s, my father had a nodding acquaintance with several self-made plutocrats whose educational attainments could be listed on the back of a postage stamp. One was a furrier who had become chairman of Norwich City Football Club. Another had sold his dairy franchise to the Milk Marketing Board. There was also talk of Bernard Matthews, the Turkey King, whom my father claimed to remember from the days of his apprenticeship, when he "kept a few chickens in his mother's shed". What distinguished them was a peculiar, and at times, almost brazen, larger-than-life quality. The milk mogul, for instance, was famous for having gold-plated taps. By contrast, the smiling Mr Gill looks a model of dignified restraint. And so the sanitisation of modern business life continues. Presumably there are still self-made millionaires somewhere without an aitch to their name, who dine nightly off oysters and brown stout, who marry nightclub hostesses and drive Rolls-Royces with personalised number-plates. Sadly there don't seem to be any on Mr Beresford's list.

***

Here and there amid the stew of comment on this week's disturbances came a few – a very few – stirrings of revolutionary sentiment. I couldn't help smiling at the man who wrote to The Independent, from an address in Kingston upon Thames, proclaiming his support for "disenfranchised and abused communities" as they rose up in "anger and frustration". How, you wondered, would he feel if they rose up and vented some of their anger and frustration in the genteel streets of Kingston upon Thames? Invite them in and offer them cups of tea? Look the other way while they trashed the local Londis?

Then, to join this armchair Robespierre, came an email from the Communist Party of Great Britain. This included a declaration from the Young Communist League to the effect that the riots were "a direct product of capitalism". As a piece of political analysis, this struck me as spot-on; faulty only in its assumption that the youth of London were rebelling against something they would sooner see dispensed with. Surely if they were protesting against anything, it was their inability to finesse their way through capitalism's front door – to make it into that paradisal marketplace of designer trainers, smart phones and plasma TVs, by which practically all human achievement and moral feeling is currently judged.

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