DJ Taylor: A confederacy of toffs

You may not agree with their politics, but posh people make better dinner dates and have better slogans. Plus, Monty Python and pop rebels enjoy middle age

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It was remarkable how quickly this year's Conservative Party conference degenerated into to what the novelist Anthony Powell (like David Cameron and several of his colleagues, an Old Etonian) called A Question of Upbringing.

Certainly the Tories' economic policies were thought to be of passing interest to the voter, but another crucial issue could be found sneaking up on the rails. Was the opposition front bench simply too posh? What could an Old Etonian be expected to know about the challenges facing that mythical man or woman in the street? The suspicion that we shall soon be the victims of a kind of toffs' conspiracy hatched at some long-ago meeting of the Bullingdon Club, and a level of cabinet-table social exaltation unmatched since the days of Harold Macmillan, was compounded by More4's screening of When Boris Met Dave, which dwelt, with no very great subtlety, on the sub-Brideshead recreations of the mid-1980s Oxford intake.

All this raises the fascinating question – fascinating, that is, to anyone who sees politics in terms of personalities rather than ideological cross-currents rolling back and forth – of what our political leaders are like as individuals, and the social and intellectual categories in which they repose. The exercise may be horribly subjective, but the results, especially for those of us still vestigially attached to the Labour Party, can be deeply depressing. Thus, a glance at Gordon Brown at the despatch box stirs only the thought that here is someone who seems deeply uneasy about the role he has to play and whose every gesture hints at massive inner disquiet. To inspect David Cameron, on the other hand, bobbing up in front of a conference microphone, or shaking hands with a well-wisher, is to be aware of a degree of familiarity. Over the past quarter-century, I have come across dozens of David Camerons, sauntering across college quadrangles and sashaying out of City boardrooms – affable, well-educated, well-lunched, intensely and often comically ambitious, but somehow redeeming this ambition through sheer charm and personal attack.

"The trouble about those Etonians," someone once said to me, probably in one of those selfsame college quadrangles, "is that they're so bloody personable." Indeed they are, and there is a whole thesis to be written about the right's ability to seem sharper, brighter, funnier and more sophisticated than the dim, benighted, upstart left. To put it another way, I could see myself having a conversation with David Cameron, but struggling to exchange the barest pleasantry with Gordon Brown.

The same distinctions apply, alas, to one's professional career. Back in the 1980s, scrabbling for a toehold on the rock-face of weekly journalism, it was always the glamorous, insouciant public-school boys of the Spectator who waved one into their offices and issued invites to their parties rather than the dour old polytechnic lefties of the New Statesman. My old tutor used to say that he was "a vote with the left, dine with the right kind of person". At the time I thought this one of the funniest things I had ever heard. Now I see exactly what he meant.

***

Watching the platform speakers at Manchester, flanked by a sign reading "Time For Change", one was conscious of something else the right usually does better than the left, and that is to dream up campaign slogans. There need not be a general election for another nine months, but already roomfuls of party apparatchiks are wrestling with the thorny problem of what to stick on the cover of next year's manifesto. If I were Gordon Brown, I should be very exercised by this responsibility, if only because Labour's track record in the sloganeering department is truly awful. 2005's strap-line – "Forward Not Back" – struck a note of banality unmatched since How To Be Topp's Nigel Molesworth remarked to the under-matron Prudence Entwhistle that on the whole mumps were better than measles, but the tendency to naff rallying calls goes back at least half a century.

In 1966, for example, with the Conservatives fighting under the terse banner of "Action Not Words", Harold Wilson's advisers came up with the hectoring "You Know Labour Government Works". Come 1970, faced with the sun-lit uplands prognosis of "A Better Tomorrow", Labour countered with the elephantine "Now Britain's Strong Again, Let's Make Her Great To Live In". As for next year, a number of possible slogans suggest themselves – "Belt-Tightening For All", perhaps, or "Don't Let Them Ruin It More" – none of them particularly enticing. Still, it could all be worse. Back in the 1960s, a proposal that the party should campaign under the shout-line "Labour's On The Go" was jettisoned at the 11th hour when someone pointed out that in parts of the north country this was a slang expression for diarrhoea.

***

The 40th anniversary of Monty Python's first appearance on BBC TV launched a flotilla of articles on its legacy to comedy. Most of these wondered whether, in the clear light of early 21st-century comedic taste, the programmes were actually funny. Several charitably concluded that it was the sheer novelty of watching soccer-playing philosophers and parrot-voiced housewives nipping to Paris to ask Mrs Sartre if Jean-Paul were at home that made audiences laugh. Somewhat marginalised in all this, though, was the Pythons' indisputable role in destroying the idea of a comedy mainstream, with its universal appeal to a mass audience.

In Revolution in the Head, his dazzling analysis of the Beatles and the 1960s, the late Ian MacDonald suggested that it was on the release of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that the parental generation parted company with their children's tastes. You suspect that something very similar happened when Messrs Cleese, Palin and co first performed one of their brainy skits on existentialism. My father, hitherto entranced by such exponents of anarcho-comedy as The Crazy Gang and prepared to put up with the Goons, drew the line at the fish-slapping dance. "College kids isn't it?" he used to complain. On the other hand, nearly all comedy is ultimately divisive, in that it rests on the ability to "get the joke". Set against what might be called the Tory view of humour, which holds that banana skins, slapstick and bodily functions are ipso facto hilarious, one sees the absolute inevitability of the rise of Monty Python. Whether or not you laughed, rather like Modernism, it had to happen.

***

The BBC News at Ten coverage of this year's Man Booker prize turned out to be even more irritating than usual. Instead of a synopsis of the evening's entertainment at the Guildhall, we were offered the briefest glimpse of Hilary Mantel at the microphone followed by a brisk little exercise in mass-market populism. Wolf Hall, it was revealed, had so far sold 50,000 copies and could expect to sell a whole lot more. Last year's winner, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, had hit the half-million mark. On the other hand, last year's best-selling British novel had sold a cool 643,000, while Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol had registered a whopping 800,000.

I was trying to work out exactly what point this proved when the rugged features of the novelist Robert Harris appeared on the screen. Mr Harris, who was said to regard the Booker as "posh bingo", observed somewhat plaintively that we didn't disparage the Beatles simply because they sold lots of records. Again, I wasn't sure exactly what point was being made. Did Mr Harris think that Dan Brown was the literary equivalent of the Beatles? Or that the public was always right, whatever tosh they could be hoodwinked into buying? Or that high sales were synonymous with merit? In the end Ms Mantel had the last laugh, when it was announced, a bare 24 hours later, that she had replaced Dan Brown at the head of the Amazon chart.

***

Instances of what the poet Thom Gunn called "the revolt into style", whereby any newfangled and/or remotely threatening youth movement is instantly commercialised and sedated by the Biz, no longer have the capacity to startle. Even so I was mildly surprised to switch on the BBC's breakfast programme on Thursday morning and find the former Joy Division and New Order bass player Peter Hook plugging his new book, The Hacienda, inset left. Mr Hook, as is nearly always the case in these situations, was suavity itself, deprecated his youthful excesses, regretted the "vortex of hedonism" into which he had been sucked and counselled any young people who might be watching not to follow his example.

All this was deeply reassuring, and oddly prophetic. Looking ahead to 2029, I confidently expect to find Patrick Wolf judging the Booker Prize, Lord Lydon of Hoxton taking his seat in the Lords, and Lady "Lady" Gaga graciously accepting the presidency of the Townswomen's Guild.

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