DJ Taylor: Let 'em choose, and they choose wrong

Old-style liberalism is under threat from all this misbehaviour in high places. Plus, a personal stand against overnight sensations

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The really depressing thing about the Great British Banker Hunt, currently pressing on with wild halloo around the City of London, not to mention the Leveson inquiry, which chunters grimly on in the background, is their implications for what might be called the spirit of liberalism: "liberalism" meaning a belief in laissez-faire, rather than membership of the Liberal Democrat Party or a Darwinian view of economics in which the go-ahead righteously prosper and the lame are thrown out on to the scrapheap forthwith.

The old-style liberal, if closely questioned, would probably proclaim – rather like that great modern liberal Tony Blair – that he (or she) believed in the lightest of light-touch regulation, whether fiscal, social or moral; that he held to the desirability of not interfering in people's lives, and in giving individual citizens the ability to make choices, in the pious hope that some of the decisions they made would be based on collective need rather than outright self-interest.

Inspecting the activities of the Murdoch press, or the rate-fixers at Barclays, on the other hand, the old-style liberal will reluctantly concede that the fault lies in too much laissez-faire. Give a certain type of journalist liberty, in other words, and he will use it to tap people's telephones. Give a certain breed of banker liberty and they will simply go on feathering their nests. In the sphere of mass entertainment, the consequences of this new-found licence are even more insidious, in that they consist of a prodigious increase in "choice", which, given that it is accompanied by an equally prodigious decline in quality, is actually no choice at all.

As for regulating these excesses, this, too, is horribly problematic. Clearly, in the wake of the Barclays debacle, fiscal regulation in the UK will acquire teeth. Equally clearly, this orthodontic refit will disadvantage us in the company of those burgeoning new economies whose attitude to reining back the corporate buccaneers is much more relaxed than our own. Down at the level of individual behaviour, meanwhile, the consequence of our horror at a "nanny state" is mass obesity and drunk-filled A&E departments. But this, as any old-style liberal will tell you, is liberalism's tragic flaw: the fact that if you allow people "choice", many of them will eagerly set about undermining the foundations on which the whole idea of choice rested in the first place.

Over the past couple of months, an extraordinary volte-face has been taking place in the world of education. It consists not in specific proposals for curriculum reform, but in a fundamental overthrow of most of the orthodoxies on which modern educational philosophy was based. For decades, a succession of Secretaries of State have encouraged us to believe that the GCSE was a thoroughly equitable way of measuring ability, that competing exam boards were a wonderful thing ("choice" again) and that our universities were distinguished by their insistence on the highest academic standards.

Now it appears that we were wrong about this. Almost at the wave of a wand, it turns out that the GCSE system is horribly flawed, that the existence of contending exam boards encourages schools to settle for softer, league- table-enhancing options, and that – to put it mildly – the wholesale expansion of the university system could have done with being thought through in advance. All this having been admitted and, for the most part accepted, it would now be nice to have one of those Private Eye-style "An Apology" letters, signed by the last dozen or so education secretaries and beginning: "Over the past 20 years we may inadvertently have given the impression that our educational system was entirely fit for purpose. In the light of new evidence recently brought to our intention, we should like to …" It would be rather a long letter, but well worth seeing in print.

There is one group of participants in this disaster for whom one feels a great deal of sympathy. These, of course, are the children, who for the past couple of decades have been hoodwinked and bamboozled by a gang of politicians bent on making the figures look good rather than attending to their educational needs, and will now be told that, however diligently they may have applied themselves, the qualifications they achieved were suspect to begin with.

As the sales of E L James's Fifty Shades franchise pass their millionth copy, evidence of a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon, in which people are driven into bookshops by a kind of morphic resonance, is everywhere apparent. I was standing in the Norwich branch of Waterstones the other day when a posse of teenagers breezed in, avid to buy a book of whose title they knew only the word "grey". An astute sales assistant was summoned and an accommodation reached.

On the other hand, pockets of resistance can still be found. Parked at The Book Hive, an independent bookshop, not long afterwards I watched an eager punter stroll in and ask for the book. The proprietor raised his head wearily from the desk and muttered the single word "No". Catching my eye, he then remarked, leaving emphatic gaps between the words, "I simply … can't … be … bothered." Thinking that anti-populist gestures of this kind ought to be supported, I instantly shelled out for Stephen Spender: New Selected Journals. Mysteriously, in the world of light literature, elitism sometimes pays.

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