D J Taylor: Out of the swing

The BBC's tentative US poll analysis is a result of the corporation's nervous new approach. Bolder by far is Trump's invasion of Scotland. But novelists top the lot

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Election night coverage

I watched the BBC's US election special with an American friend, a quarter of a century resident on this side of the Atlantic, but umbilically attached to all the good, brave, Democrat causes. It was an odd experience. As David Dimbleby's features loomed good-naturedly up out of the small screen for the first time, her face suddenly stiffened into attack dog mode, as if only an invisible leash prevented her from leaping up off the sofa. I could see her point entirely, and yet for once these anxieties over what the corporation might do to trivialise or over-egg the significance of the events unfolding before us were misplaced. In fact, the coverage that followed was restrained to the point of coma. The expensive, not to say fatuous, computer graphics that usually accompany these contests were gone; nobody fed the first result (a Republican win in Kentucky) into a computer and extrapolated a McCain landslide; above all, the scent of partisanship that usually hangs over election specials had mysteriously disappeared.

While everybody in the room – party cheerleaders excepted – clearly wanted Obama to win, those in charge were doing a very good impression of studied neutrality. It was all a far cry from recent British general elections, where the anti-Conservative bias of certain BBC pundits (I write as a member of the Labour Party, by the way) has been so flagrant as to make you wonder exactly how they got away with it. Peter Snow, for instance, now retired, used barely to be able to keep a sneer off his face when reckoning up the Tories' chances. There is no great mystery, of course, behind this sudden excess of timidity. In the wake of the Brand/Ross disaster the corporation is simply terrified of offending anybody. This will sadly curtail its effectiveness down at the cutting edge of young persons' late-night comedy, but when it comes to political reportage the new spirit of hubris makes a very nice change.

Hitchens strikes

One widely held view of the Obama victory – leaving aside its political implications – seemed to be: they do these things much better over there. Whether it was the highflown oratory of the president-elect's victory speech, McCain's graciousness in defeat, the unfeigned emotion of Condoleezza Rice or the articulacy of the pundits beamed in every so often from Times Square or Culpepper, Virginia, where the BBC had set up its regional HQ, all the best performances were Stateside. Dimbleby's team of talking-heads oozed gravitas and professional suavity. Pride of place in this high-minded pantheon went to Professor Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia, whose sober interventions and elaborately styled hair (in which there lurked the faint suspicion of a toupee), prompted the thought that home-grown equivalents such as the University of Essex's Professor Anthony King could do with a make-over.

There was one exception to this rule. Quite why Christopher Hitchens can't have his own late-night talk-show when inferior talents such as Jonathan Ross are on £6m a year is one of the great mysteries of the modern media. Here, although drinkless and cigaretteless, the Hitch was on top form: austere, insouciant, blithely aphoristic. This being one o'clock in the morning, I didn't manage to write it all down, but I am pretty certain that he described Sarah Palin as "an affront to democracy", while there was a definite reference to McCain having physically and mentally declined as the campaign went on, not to mention some glorious "I know we're not supposed to say this but..." interjections on Hillary Clinton's playing of the race card in the Ohio primaries. Dimbleby's American guests looked on in horror, as if an orang-utan had suddenly crashed its way into a vicarage tea-party and started throwing the plates about. "I wouldn't quite put it in the terms Christopher has used," one of them murmured, when invited to respond to a Hitch bon mot, "but...". I think we know how he felt.

Trump despoils

If it was a good week for American democracy, then it was a spectacularly bad one for its British equivalent, especially of the local kind. There you are, let us say, the proud resident of an Aberdonian village out there on the blasted granite of north-east Scotland. Donald Trump, an American billionaire with no connection to the place save that of ancestry, announces that he wants to build a top-of-the-range golf course complete with luxury apartments. The local councillors whom you have democratically elected throw out the scheme, whereupon a craven Scottish executive calls it in and approves it. Exactly the same thing has just happened in Suffolk, where a disused quarry in Ipswich will now be transformed into an indoor winter sports centre, despite local opposition and a planning thumbs-down. Why does central government go on sucking up to developers in this way? And what is the point of ministerial bromides about democratic accountability if it can be instantly overthrown whenever the Government feels like it or has some plutocrat to appease?

In some ways the Suffolk capitulation was eclipsed by last week's news from Norfolk, where the quango that advises the government's housing planners has just proposed that the county should build another 67,000 properties in addition to the 74,000 already ordered up. Even the county council, which generally sits up on its hindquarters and begs when a developer strolls by, has its doubts about where the houses might go and who might pay for them. It was Douglas Jay, over 70 years ago, who remarked that "the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves". Half the country's problems could be solved by overcoming the complacency of the Civil Service.

Hiatus maxime deflendus

One of the week's most dispiriting pieces of news was the report that various local councils are set to prohibit the use of Latin terms in their publications on the grounds that readers may be "confused". The leading classicist Professor Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge has condemned the move as the linguistic equivalent of "ethnic cleansing".

The days when classical tags existed to reinforce class differences are long gone (the Victorian Dean Gaisford, leaning over the pulpit of Christchurch Oxford, advised his congregation that the study of Greek might lead "to positions of considerable emolument".) The argument in their favour is that of simple utility. Celebrity X explaining that he could not have fathered a child on woman Y for the unarguable reason that he had neither met nor slept with her could wrap the whole business up with the two words a fortiori. Speaking for myself, anima naturaliter nonconformistica*, I should find the absence of Latin from public discourse hiatus maxime deflendus**, and even an impediment to the quest to see ourselves sub specie aeternitatis***. Never mind its difficulty. As Barack Obama will tell you, per ardua ad astra****.

* a naturally nonconformist type

** a want greatly to be deplored

*** in the context of eternity

**** through adversity to the stars

The origins of baseball

Book of the week has to be Julian Norridge's highly entertaining Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? How The British Invented Sport (Penguin £17.99) which notes that Jane Austen was an early user of the term "baseball", only for the neologism – and the origins of the game – to be appropriated by a dissembling Yankee sports magnate named Albert Spalding. Certainly Northanger Abbey, written in 1797-8, on which Norridge rests his case, seems to corroborate this. But the prescience of novelists shouldn't surprise us. One of Richmal Crompton's early William novels, for example, seems to harbour the glimmerings of much of modern French literary theory. William's father declares that if a particularly unlikely event occurs he will "eat his hat". Miraculously, it does occur, whereupon William proposes that the names we give to things aren't necessarily set in stone, that a hat could just as well be called a mint humbug and vice versa. Mr Brown agrees: William gets the sweets. All this – the idea that significations are imposed on objects by the people who authenticate their use – predates Roland Barthes by about 40 years.

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