D J Taylor: Party-crashers of the right - a weighty issue

Those well-lunched reactionaries in suits; the publican and the mogul; literary detective stories; and no more belly laughs at tubby's expense
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The Independent Online

I can date my deep suspicion of the Tory right wing to a moment in the late 1970s when, coming home from school and switching on the television, I chanced upon a conference debate.

The subject was foreign affairs, and some hapless frontbench spokesman had been given the task of defending the sanctions then being imposed on Ian Smith's whites-only regime in Rhodesia. The front part of the hall greeted this with stoical silence. Higher up the tiers of seating, on the other hand, what had begun as sporadic jeering turned into a full-throated chorus of dissent.

Two things struck me about this exhibition. The first was a feeling of reluctant admiration. It took some guts – even in the 1970s – to suggest by your behaviour in a public place that you thought white people were superior to black people, and that almost any outrage against a subject race was excusable in the light of Rhodesia's notional status as a bulwark against communism. The other was a realisation that the jeerers – those stalwarts of the Monday Club, those sagacious ornaments of the 1922 Committee – looked the same. They were nearly all patrician gentlemen of a certain age in expensive suits, who had they been having dinner rather than attending a debate would have thrown bread rolls rather than wave conference papers.

All that was before the spin doctors had managed to suborn party conferences to their orchestrating will. The Tory right has changed, too, and is as likely to select its tribunes from some Midlands council chamber rather than the sofa of a gentlemen's club in St James's. And yet how bravely the old convictions endure. Eighty years ago, social historians used to talk about "the hard-faced men who did well out of the war". So let us all spare a thought for the hard-faced men who have done well (up to a point) out of the Conservative Party. There they sit, quietly fizzing, as David Cameron proclaims support for gay marriages and comprehensive schools, just itching to denounce bank regulation, human rights acts, overseas aid and Kenneth Clarke, and strike a blow for the "freedom" of the well-off to exploit the ground-down. There are enough reasons not to vote Tory, but all those well-lunched men in suits who believe that Theresa May is wasted at the Home Office is the most compelling.

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Meanwhile, one continues to note the profound differences between the Tory right and the populist right. This is at its most dramatic when contrasting attitudes to Rupert Murdoch. The old-style Tory right may not like him but they respect his astuteness and ability to deliver newspaper support for the Tory cause. To the populist right, he is one of those international moguls gamely contriving to keep the little man in his place. Last Tuesday, it was revealed that the pub landlady arraigned for using cheap decoders to screen Sky football games had won her appeal. How, you wondered, would this one play on the Sky News website? The citizens who leave comments here are as rabidly right wing as they come. Here, on the other hand, they were exulting in Mr Murdoch's defeat. Mysteriously, the European Court had turned out to be a very good thing.

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My local paper devoted a page to Miranda Richards, the former fund-manager said to be the "inspiration" for Allison Pearson's recently filmed novel I Don't Know How She Does It. It said Ms Richards "recalls sneaking out of meetings to call home, missed parents' evenings, tearful goodbyes before business trips ... and a sense of unease as her daughters grew increasingly attached to their nanny." It's tough at the top. As for the "inspiration", the paper noted that Ms Pearson's central character "is based on Miranda and has the same job, but incidents in the novel are based on the experiences of a number of working mothers". From the angle of a literary sleuth who wishes to trace a novel back to its imaginative source, all this was rather unsatisfactory. I was reminded of the late William Cooper who altered the names of homosexual characters in his novel Scenes From Provincial Life (1950) – supposedly based on close friends – because homosexuality was then a crime. Forty years later, Cooper's parties still echoed to the sound of middle-aged men proudly confiding, "Of course, I'm Steve". Or there was the time when, at a Laurie Lee evening staged at Gloucester Town Hall, the compere announced that, at a given signal, the original of Cider with Rosie would declare herself. The signal was given, whereupon three elderly ladies clambered to their feet.

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News that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is not to seek the Republican presidential nomination has implications beyond politics. Christie said "it didn't feel right in my gut". This turns out to be almost literally true – for at 20 stone he decided his excess pounds not only pose a health risk, but that opponents would have a field day with his BMI. All this raises the question are fat people still funny? Public opinion, you feel, is ever more ambivalent, if only because so much of that public is now obese. Watching a TV documentary about the UK's fattest man, the luckless Paul Mason, one sensed that the medics transporting him to hospital in a specially reinforced ambulance were torn between sympathy and a feeling that Mr Mason could have done more to restrict his calorific intake. Doubtless the fact that a fat man who walks on to a bus isn't automatically addressed as "tubby" by the driver is a mark of progress. At the same time another staple of bygone comedy has gone to join mothers-in-law, lodgers and adultery in the rubbish bin. The comic's plight is that there is so little left to be funny about.

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