DJ Taylor: Divisive, detached and intolerant

Modern Tories are showing their true colours with campaigns that are a long way from conservatism with a small C
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The Independent Online

With the Olympics a fortnight gone, and normal political service more or less resumed, it was a good week for connoisseurs of the numberless varieties of modern Conservatism. Recent manifestations of current Tory thinking have included the happy thought that the recent relaxation of Sunday trading laws should be extended – this is said to have the support of the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles – the notion that local authority housing departments should be allowed to sell off desirable properties in upmarket areas, and the suggestion, courtesy of a quintet of free-market Tory MPs, that one of the UK's great economic misfortunes is the laziness of its workforce.

Naturally, from most non-Tory standpoints these are all terrible ideas. The relaxation of Sunday trading laws further disadvantages the small trader in his battle against the supermarkets, while offering almost limitless possibilities for the exploitation of the shopworker. The disposal of council properties in leafy suburbs is, at the very least, going to worsen social divisions rather than improve them, while the message from the free-enterprise group behind Britannia Unchained is the usual old chestnut about practically any economic policy or fiscal hijack being politically acceptable if it inflates corporate profits. At the same time, it is worth putting one's instinctive prejudices aside for a moment and considering these nostrums on purely philosophical grounds.

Here a fresh difficulty presents itself. It is, as students of Conservative Party history may have deduced, that none of these suggestions is in the least bit "Conservative", according to standard definitions. Rather than seeking to ameliorate the general lot, or to preserve fine old traditions from the corrosive effects of radical zeal, they are sectional, divisive and fundamentally detached from the best interests of ordinary people. To go back to Britannia Unchained, even if it could be proved that British workers were incorrigibly idle, then the possibility that this lack of enthusiasm might stem from their lack of any real stake in the corporations for whom they labour seems to have passed its authors by.

The really curious thing about these ideological uncoilings is the implied indifference on the part of their advocates to what used to be the Tory party's natural supporters. What would Alderman Roberts, the Grantham grocer, think of Sunday opening for supermarkets? Even worse, perhaps, are the linguistic deceptions on offer. But then "freedom" and "enterprise" will always sound better than "sucking up to vested interests".

Debates about the possible "death" of the novel have been enlivening newspaper arts pages for the past half-century. Usually these discussions turn on the concept of the aesthetic dead-end: the presumption, for example, that so leisurely and interior a form, interested in such monumental abstracts as power and morality, might have trouble acclimatising itself to the fast-moving, hi-tech, ever more fragmented landscape we now supposedly inhabit. A panel last week at Edinburgh book festival, on the other hand, could be found examining the idea that the novel's most likely despoiler is dear old technology.

According to the novelist China Miéville, the future of fiction is essentially collaborative. There will be no such thing as a definitive text, merely a tribe of "guerilla editors" out there in cyberspace, cutting and pasting their own bespoke versions; authorial integrity, let alone authorial authority, is as moribund as the passenger pigeon. This, it has to be said, is a highly fashionable view of the literary future. The novelist Kate Pullinger speculates that most writers will end up composing serials for the benefit of online subscribers who are encouraged to come up with plot lines and intervene in the progress of the work.

There are several objections to this bright new, technology-saturated horizon. The most compelling, oddly enough, has nothing to do with the loss of authorial integrity; it is, rather, that the results are likely to be artistically dreadful. As a general rule, writers who set out with the express intention of appeasing their audience nearly always lose their edge, whether that audience is a noble patron, a scholarly committee or an online reading group. Rather than making future fiction "dangerous" and "experimental", as the optimists insist, cyberspace collaborations will probably make it merely innocuous.

My excitement at the news that Terence Davies is about to film Lewis Grassic Gibbon's inter-war classic Sunset Song was slightly tempered by an interview with its leading lady, Agyness Deyn, that appeared in The Times. "Oh, my God," Ms Deyn remarked, "I play, like, this woman called Chris Guthrie, and it spans from her being, like, 15 to 30, and it's this incredible story of the strength of this woman who has terrible things happen to her and she fights throughout that. It's this famous Scottish literature book.…"

For a moment we were back in Kate Winslet territory – Ms Winslet, you may remember, once remarked, of her role in Iris, that she was a huge admirer of Iris Murdoch but had not yet got round to any of her novels. To counter this no doubt snobbish assumption that an actor who appears in a film dramatisation really ought to know something about the artefact being dramatised, is the school of thought which maintains that a first-rate performer can conquer all these deficiencies through the sheer visual oomph of the mimesis. Having read the script, Ms Deyn apparently declared herself "like, so moved". Well, it's a start.