DJ Taylor: Britain is ready for a highbrow PM

Bright politicians should learn that authenticity pays; dirty wars in leafy suburbia; and books that shape generations

Share
Related Topics

It was a surprisingly good week for ex-prime ministers. Sir John Major found himself acclaimed in the newspapers for having inaugurated the National Lottery, and thereby funding our Olympic heroes, while Gordon Brown – the Macavity of British politics since his election defeat in 2010 – enjoyed admiring coverage for an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which he threw his considerable weight behind the Union. In what was described as a "highly intellectual speech", Mr Brown asserted that "modern Britain is founded on something more important than old sentiment, self-interest, temporary advantage" and challenged the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's belief that Scotland would retain its social union with the UK after independence.

Bracing as all this undoubtedly was, you couldn't help wondering why Mr Brown hadn't made a few such speeches when he was in power, instead of reserving them for a book festival audience several years after power had slipped from his grasp. It is not, of course, Mr Brown's fault, for if there is one thing on which modern political orthodoxy insists it is that our leaders should make a habit of publicly declaring themselves dyed-in-the-wool middlebrows, eschewing anything remotely complex, either in the fields of political argument or cultural preference, for fear of alienating what their spin-doctors must assume are some incorrigibly dull-witted voters.

And so poor Mr Brown, while in office, was always having to pretend that he enjoyed listening to popular music that he had probably never heard of, and watching television programmes that doubtless made him blench. Exactly the same terror of being thought brainy now afflicts his successor, whose supposed cultural tastes, when disclosed to interviewers, are clearly predicated not on what he really likes but on the necessity to avoid giving offence.

One had hopes of David Cameron, whose former Oxford tutor esteems him as one of the cleverest undergraduates he ever taught, only for Mr Cameron to blow this promising start by being pictured at an airport some years ago with a copy of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. No disrespect either to the novelist or his admirer, but this is the kind of book that a politician thinks it desirable to be seen taking on holiday rather than one he actually wants to read. On the other hand, last year Mr Cameron is supposed to have selected Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography. There is a lesson for the Labour Party here.

Just as one always assumed that the "West Country parson" who supposedly wrote to The Times each spring alleging that he had heard the first cuckoo was apocryphal, so hard evidence of letters to The Daily Telegraph signed "Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells" is notoriously difficult to come by. On the other hand, judging by last week's news from the royal borough, "Disgusted", or even "Disgusting" has been making their presence felt. In fact, it appears that local residents, alarmed by the amount of street parking commandeered by the insurance company AXA, have responded by daubing the interlopers' vehicles with dog excrement.

The general feeling appeared to be that this was a step too far for the town's ultra-conservative image, although one resident, 71-year-old Trevor Vaughan, remarked that "People are taking the law into their own hands. You can't blame them if they can't park outside their own houses." My own view is that this dirty war, played out among the leafy back-streets, is entirely understandable, for one of the great truths of English suburban life is that the more genteel the façade, the more torrid the passions liable to be seething behind its Laura Ashley curtains.

The 1984 memoir of the Oxford historian Richard Cobb of his formative years, Still Life: Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood, reveals a nest of eccentricity and weirdness, including a family of well-heeled recluses so mindful of their dignity that the senior members never left the house. One of the young Cobb's most enduring memories was the daily procession of City-suited drunks descending from the London train at Tunbridge Wells station and then collapsing in heaps as they tried to make their way home. With this proud heritage to contend with, you have an idea that the AXA car fleet is getting off rather lightly.

The death of the long-time Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, at the age of 90, produced some learned disquisitions on the possible influence of her 1962 best-seller Sex and the Single Girl on a generation of young Western women. By chance, more or less the same territory was explored in last week's Radio 4 programme on Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything (1958), which Don Draper is seen reading in an early episode of Mad Men, presumably to get a handle on the vexed question of "what women want".

Influential as certain books indisputably are, you always suspect that much-hyped lifestyle guides of this kind – Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is a variant from the same era – are much less decisive in their effect than posterity tends to insist, and that the really important texts are much more prosaically conceived.

My own candidates for the two books with the greatest direct influence on British life in the second half of the 20th century would be the bound version of the Beveridge Report and the Second World War infantry training manual.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering