D J Taylor: Only Sir Bufton Tufton can save us now

The real opposition to the New Conservatism, is ... the old Conservatives; plus, a social history of brown bread

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Budget week offered a welcome opportunity to observe some of the varieties of modern Conservatism in action. First, we had the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, talking about a "kaleidoscope Queen" – Her Majesty sitting tolerantly by – to the unfeigned horror of certain members of the government front bench. Then we had the continuing debate about the coalition's plans to suspend the Sunday trading laws during the Olympic Games, to which could be added its highly contentious scheme to relax the planning laws as a way of stimulating economic growth.

Both the last two proposals had the happy effect of exposing the gaping chasm that exists between the old-style, traditional and predominantly rural Conservative and his or her much less patrician, 21st-century update. Back in the 1970s, right-leaning newspapers were fond of quoting an epigram by a long-forgotten Tory MP. "As Conservatives, we are against change," this titan of the back benches had declared. "But when it comes, we try to make it decent." The new-style, free-market Conservative turns this maxim on its head. He is very much in favour of change, and as for decency, well that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much in the eye of the beholder.

All this generally produces a series of responses which, to the Tory traditionalist, are well-nigh incomprehensible. The new-style Conservative – one of those combative small businessmen, perhaps, for whom an income-tax rate of 50p in the pound is the denial of a basic human right – looks at a meadow and sees not a patch of grass which has delighted the eye for the past 10,000 years, but the basis for a couple of hundred rabbit hutches full of people who read the Daily Express and, if the right kind of wool is pulled over their eyes, may even vote Conservative at the next election.

It is the same with the Sunday trading laws, of whose prospective relaxation the Chancellor observed that it would be a shame if visitors received the impression that Britain was "closed for business". Now, there have been one or two questionable sports brought to the Olympic roster in the past couple of decades, but I don't recall shopping being among them. The great thing about Sunday trading and the planning free-for-all is that much of the opposition to them, inside and outside Westminster, will be headed by other Conservatives. The Tory knight of the shires, immortalised in the figure of Private Eye's Sir Bufton Tufton, the member for Lymeswold Central, has been a figure of fun for half a century, but Mr Osborne may find that he has underestimated Sir Bufton's tenacity.

***

The book I most enjoyed reading last week was Pat Long's The History of the New Musical Express, about the magazine which in any competition to select the most influential periodical of the late 1970s would probably be nudged from the podium only by the Alexander Chancellor-era Spectator. The NME still sells around 30,000 copies a week, and yet Long's tone is entirely elegiac: nearly half the 200-plus pages are devoted to the 1970s, and the activities of such legendary rock scribes as Nick Kent, Ian MacDonald and my particular hero, Charles Shaar Murray, while the past 10 years are given a couple of paragraphs.

Even more curious, perhaps, is that the excellence of much of the NME's output seemed to exist in inverse proportion to the quality of the music being written about. The mid-1970s was a thin time for popular music, the era of men with beards craning pompously over synthesisers and hobbity heavy-metal yodellings, and yet it produced some of the best rock journalism brought to print. I can still remember Murray's calamitous 1975 interview with Paul McCartney almost word for word, and in particular the accompanying photograph which showed CSM lurking bashfully on the edge of the McCartney entourage beneath a speech bubble that read: "What can a man such as myself say to an ex-Beatle who has made such a crappy album?"

For some reason, the worst kind of music produced the best kind of criticism. Back in the world of books, more or less the opposite applies. One of the most amusing things about the London Review of Books, after all, is the sight of some grand old academic eminence – Professor Terry Eagleton, say – trying to make head or tail of a mediocre contemporary novel.

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According to the business pages, Britons seems to have fallen out of love with Hovis, the brand of brown bread that has featured in the nation's diet for the past century and a quarter. Its owner, Premier Foods, has apparently taken a £282bn "impairment charge" on its bread division, while admitting that its profitability has declined and may not recover.

The role of brown bread and wholemeal as cultural signifiers have been undervalued by social historians. Touring the depressed north of England on the journey that produced The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell reflected on the reluctance of working-class communities to eat non-white and therefore healthier loaves. He deduced that they were associated in the popular mind with Roman Catholicism, and additionally were regarded as "dirty".

More recently, brown bread's allure has been tainted by its connection with simple-lifer crankiness. Worse, despite decades of sepia-tinted advertising, for certain traditionalists, a preference for white has served as a kind of anti-fashion statement. It was Mark E Smith in the Fall classic "M5" who inveighed against a countryside "stuffed to the gills with crusty brown bread". Clearly, Hovis has got its work cut out.

***

As one whose father's opening remark to him when he came back from his first term at university was "Where did you get that half-crown voice?", I sympathised with the Duchess of Cambridge, one of whose "unnamed schoolfriends" confessed that "She spoke with just a very normal middle England accent when I knew her. Now she sounds as if she has a mouthful of plums."

In fact, the Duchess's first public speaking engagement was a pleasure to listen to, if only because she was a) intelligible, and b) pronounced all the words correctly. One fail-safe way of improving what is rather grandly known as "public discourse" would be to dispense with the common assumption that a well-spoken voice is somehow "elitist".

The point about Miss Glottal Stop and Master Dropped Aitch who wreak such havoc on children's television is not that they speak in regional accents, but that their diction is so poor that the viewer spends most of his time trying to establish what is being said. If her berth in the Royal Family doesn't work out, there is always a place for the Duchess on Newsround.

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