DJ Taylor: Labour's panto horse staggers on, as mulish critics kick at the Pope

If the Liberal Democrats can capitalise on Nick Clegg's success in the leaders' debate, perhaps we will at last see a radical realignment of the centre-left
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Even before his Thursday night TV grand slam, the politician for whom I felt most sympathy this week was the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg.

It is not true, as Lib Dem apparatchiks routinely claim, that Mr Clegg is being marginalised or overlooked – merely that in most analyses of what the public thinks or wants he is there on sufferance. To borrow an adroit piece of characterisation from an old Nick Hornby novel, if the British body politic is a lasagne, then Mr Clegg certainly isn't the pasta and he probably isn't the Bolognese sauce either. None of this is calculated to raise a politician's self-esteem and possibly explains one or two of the dodgier interventions of the past seven days, including some frightful scare-mongering in last Sunday's Observer about the chance of civil unrest should one of the major parties emerge with a wafer-thin majority.

But Mr Clegg's real problem is more than that of an energetic busker who hopefully patrols the depopulated space between two adjoining concert venues where Editors and Kasabian are about to leap on stage. Essentially, it consists of trying to shape a viable form of radicalism from the huge pile of variegated materials that lie to hand. Lord Adonis has drawn attention to the many affinities that exist between the Brown high command and the Clegg cadre, and he is perfectly entitled to do so. What he conveniently ignores is the large amount of non- or illiberal New Labour baggage which most Lib Dems find intolerable.

Broadly speaking, the modern Labour Party has always resembled a kind of pantomime horse, led by middle-class radicals, supported by the entity known as labourism and funded by the trade unions. The latter have never been a reliable vehicle for radical politics because, by and large, the trade unions' interests lie in differentials, sectionalism and status. If Mr Clegg could ever detach the 40 per cent of the Labour Party that shares his views from the 60 per cent who are still having trouble working out what century they live in, then he really could bring about that realignment of the centre-left that commentators have been wistfully imagining since the days of the SDP. Ten years ago, the commentariat used airily to speculate about the break-up of the Conservative Party, forgetting what a very resilient organism that party is. Curiously enough, the best hope of the emergence of a genuinely radical movement in British politics lies in the implosion of New Labour.

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This week's most depressing piece of news was the revelation that Christopher Hitchens, warmly backed by Professor Richard Dawkins, intends to have the Pope arraigned for "crimes against humanity" on his forthcoming visit to the UK. There are several reasons for wondering why Mr Hitchens – who, by the way, I profoundly admire as a writer – can't make better use of his time here on God's earth. One of them is that the campaign is a stunt, designed to attract newspaper headlines rather than any serious discussion of the issues at stake. Another is that it has no chance of succeeding. A third is that, amid the accusations of cover-ups – so easy to make if your working life is spent at a desk – it ignores the fact that the then Cardinal Ratzinger's appointment by John Paul II in 2001 to head a centralised investigation into child-abusing priests represented the Catholic Church's first step – horribly belated, but still a step – towards solving the scandal rather than pretending it didn't exist.

In the end, though, what we have here is another example of the partiality of modern atheism, based on an awareness, common to nearly all rationalists, that Christianity is a horribly soft target. One of the great comforts, after all, of being a professional atheist is the knowledge that if you write a book that sets out to insult practising Christians, it is a racing certainty that the Archbishop of Canterbury will review it in The Guardian. If Mr Hitchens and Professor Dawkins had any guts, they would write a series of articles arguing that the UK's half-dozen or so leading imams are credulous halfwits and lampooning Hinduism as a benighted superstition. The reason this won't happen is that Muslims and Hindus are rather less keen on turning the other cheek when their religious beliefs are impugned, and the perpetrators might find themselves in serious trouble. One would have more respect for Hitchens & co if they really were atheists, and not just anti-Christians, which is a rather different, and more ignoble, thing.

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An ancient cinematic cause célèbre turned up on Channel 5 the other day with the screening of Sam Peckinpah's notorious and long-banned Straw Dogs (1971). This prompted a question that I find myself asking every half-decade or so: whatever happened to Gordon Williams, or GM Williams, or Gordon M Williams – to name three of his professional guises – who wrote the novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm, on which Peckinpah based his censor-baiting epic?

Mr Williams, who as far as I know is still alive, had quite a career back in the Heath-Wilson era, and collaborated with Terry Venables on one of the best books ever written about football, They Used to Play on Grass. And among other accomplishments, he made the inaugural Booker shortlist in 1969 with a bona fide lost classic called From Scenes Like These.

Back in the early 2000s, when somebody reissued The Siege of Trencher's Farm in paperback, I tracked him down to a café in Soho. Mr Williams was affable, spoke tantalisingly of his current projects, reminisced about a ghost-writing commission for Bobby Moore and agreed to be profiled for a national newspaper. Since then, there has been complete silence. Most novelists end up by writing too much. Gordon Williams falls into what these days is an exclusive literary category: the writer who hasn't written enough.

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I was amused to discover that, amid a slew of high-profile assignments for the likes of Cavalli and Longchamp, the supermodel Kate Moss has suffered what may or may not be regarded as a professional setback. Apparently, Les Arts Décoratifs, a not-for-profit Paris museum, has cancelled its forthcoming exhibition "The Kate Moss Myth" on the grounds that no one will supply the necessary commercial sponsorship. According to a museum spokesman: "Cultural patronage is not a priority for companies."

All this brought back not terribly happy memories of years spent in the City of London working for companies for whom, conversely, cultural patronage was a very big deal indeed. What used to happen was this. The firm's marketing partner, whose knowledge of art was not perhaps his distinguishing feature, would be shanghai'd off to the Tate and informed that its showcasing of Bonnard or Monet lacked only an enlightened underwriter. A six-figure cheque having been trousered, and the firm's logo emblazoned on the posters, yours truly would sit down to compose an opening-night speech for the senior partner, in which some kind of connection between artist and sponsor was gamely proposed. Usually one went for that reliable abstract noun "vision". Just as Monet brought an aesthetic vision to the creation of his masterpieces, I would proudly proclaim, so Messrs Ernst & Young brought a commercial vision to etc etc. Oddly, no one ever laughed, and the whole enterprise was taken with the greatest seriousness.

Going back to the cancelled exhibition and the Kate Moss myth, has commerce really lost its urge to patronise the arts? Or is it just that Ms Moss doesn't have quite the clout of a Claude Monet or a Jean-Honoré Fragonard? Or do the potential sponsors not realise quite how much is expected of them in these cases? As a character in a Simon Raven novel once put it, you must never make the businessman's vulgar mistake of assuming that distinguished cultural services come cheap.

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Interviewed in the current Waterstone's Books Quarterly, Ian McEwan can be found reflecting on the staidness of the 1970s literary environment in which he began his career. "I don't think novelists in those days were the subject of gossip columns," he maintains. "Everything has become a little louder, a little more vulgar, a little more trashy, a little more celebrity-conscious." Mr McEwan is adducing novelty. Paradoxically, he ends up confirming one of my long-held suspicions about the literary world, which is that it never really changes. A century and a half ago, for example, exactly the same things were being said about the celebrated "Garrick Club affair", in which Thackeray, infuriated by a muckraking columnist named Edmund Yates, and convinced that Yates was being manipulated by Charles Dickens, his arch-rival,mobilised half a dozen aristocratic chums and had Yates thrown out of the club. It was Pope who remarked that literary men were fittest for "the common sink". On this evidence, the same old oily water swirls within.

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