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
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The Independent Online

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.