DJ Taylor: Magazine plays Canute as Blair and weeklies drown in celeb tide

Our former PM's shiny new – and oddly worded – memoirs confirm the celebritification of UK politics, just as the US version turns populist
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The Independent Online

Only four days into publication, Tony Blair's memoirs have already been inspected from a bewildering variety of angles.

There is, naturally enough, the apologist for international conflict angle. There is the score-settling angle, and the collapse of the New Labour project being Gordon's fault. To add to these somewhat predictable vantage points there is the bygone subterfuge angle, which discloses that our man was caballing away to replace Neil Kinnock with the late John Smith before the 1992 general election, and the celebrity-fawning angle, which finds him virtuously glad-handing the "extraordinarily captivating" Princess of Wales and the "superlative human being" that is apparently the film director Lord Attenborough. Comparatively little attention, on the other hand, has been paid to one of A Journey's most fascinating aspects, and that is the question of its style, which is one of the most curious hybrids to have been seen on the printed page in a very long time.

We all know about Mr Blair's fondness for 21st-century demotic – the "freaky" weekends at Balmoral, the penetrating estimate of the actor Kevin Spacey as "a really fun guy", the pained critique of Ed Balls's social conscience ("these guys never 'get' aspiration"). Presiding over his war cabinet, alternatively, or considering the international problems only he could solve, Mr Blair turns unexpectedly sonorous, if not downright priestly. There is talk of a "variegated array of dimensions to solve", some arresting Biblical metaphors and one or two distinctly old-fashioned turns of phrase that recall an Oxford lecture hall from the period immediately before Queen Victoria's second jubilee.

The final conclusion that can be drawn from A Journey, perhaps, is that, in the wake of the celebritification of politics – a process for which Blair was almost single-handedly responsible – there is no longer any proper language in which politics can be discussed. This is not to say that we need to return to the reverence of the old-style political memoir, where the subject's death was routinely marked down as "the passing of a great statesman", merely to point out that Mr Blair, with his rock-star hob-nobbing and his tabloid-style appraisals of cabinet colleagues ("... a truly decent guy ... He picked the wrong woman. Easy to do"), has done his very best to turn political discourse into another branch of the entertainment industry.

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Scarcely a day seems to pass without fresh evidence of the bizarre turn being taken by the populist Republican right. Sarah Palin's fruitcake tendencies are a satirist's staple, and John McCain's lurch across the centre ground towards the Tea Party foothills has been widely deplored, yet the smaller fry effervescing in their slipstream look more alarming still: Joe Miller, for example, who this week won the Alaskan Republican senate primary on an anti-abortion/slash public spending platform, or the Nevada hopeful keen on abolishing social security and leaving the United Nations.

From the perspective of the right-thinking Western liberal all this, as well as being deeply sinister, is wildly funny – a kind of modern-day version of the American chapters in Martin Chuzzlewit, in which the war correspondent for the New York Rowdy Journal goes around assuring people that the libation of freedom must sometimes be quaffed in blood. At the same time, it would be wrong to deny that the Christian conservative populists in the US have a point, the point being that the political system by which they are administered seems to them not democratic but oligarchical, its decisions taken for the people rather than by them, and via the agency of a tightly-knit and well-nigh impenetrable political caste. After all, had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in November 2008, 32 years of American history would have passed with a man or woman named Bush or Clinton occupying one of the top two jobs.

Anyone who imagines that we do things better over here, and that our politicians are more responsive to genuinely democratic pressures, will find State of Emergency, Dominic Sandbrook's study of the period 1970-1974, published later this month, a useful corrective. Mr Sandbrook is particularly illuminating on our entry into what was then the European Economic Community in 1972, when, as he demonstrates, a majority of the population was opposed (89 per cent of those polled believing that it would lead to some form of loss of sovereignty) only for an alliance of politicians and newspapers to push the legislation through. Even worse, perhaps, is the cynicism of some of those involved – that great liberal Roy Jenkins, for example, who initially opposed a referendum on entry on the grounds that referenda were invariably the enemy of "progressive causes", or Edward Heath's negotiators who, Sandbrook suggests, "deliberately avoided admitting that European Community laws would take precedence over British law...". On the other hand – something always worth bearing in mind when considering the oligarchy/democracy stand-off – given that almost no one in Britain took the faintest interest in the EEC or understood its workings, it is difficult to see what else he could have done.

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My colleague Philip Hensher wrote an amusing piece in The Independent last week on the case of the lady who threw a cat into a wheelie bin, in which he drew attention to the rather high-handed attitude adopted by the RSPCA. However much it may masquerade as a branch of the police force and talk about its intention to "interview" people suspected of cruelty to an animal, the society's legal powers, as Mr Hensher points out, are no greater than the average citizen's. I was reminded of this when reading about a man from Clacton in Essex who seriously injured himself on Monday while trying to kill a spider with an aerosol can. Unable to extract the spider from behind the lavatory where it had taken refuge, the man took out a cigarette lighter to illuminate the room. Unhappily this ignited the gas and caused a small explosion. Suffering from burns to his head, legs and torso, he was later taken to hospital, where, one devoutly hopes, an RSPCA inspector was waiting at the bedside to interview him. And what happened to the spider?

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As a connoisseur of the women's magazine, I was intrigued by the editorial stance taken by Essentials in its forthcoming October relaunch. In a move supposedly inspired by reader pressure, the publication is to "shun models, celebrities and the airbrush" in favour of 10 "real women", thereby inaugurating a policy that "no models or celebrities will appear on the cover from then onwards". Welcome as all this is, you can't help wondering what exactly will be left in the way of content. The women's magazine, it might be argued, is one of the most conspicuous victims of the celebrity tide. Many an instructive moment may be spent in front of a rack of them at the newsagent's noting how each of the contending front pages contradicts the other. On one Kerry Katona will be looking svelte and glamorous and canvassing the attractions of her new man; on another she will be accused of letting herself go and being left on the shelf. The effect of this on the reader is peculiarly dispiriting, for she (or he) tends to assume that all of it is simply made up for the gratification of a sensation-hungry public. Curiously, last week's concluding tranche of In Their Own Words, the BBC4 series featuring archive clips of 20th-century novelists, offered an interesting parallel. Indian literature, Salman Rushdie remarked, in the course of an analysis of Midnight's Children, had no tradition of realism: it was merely a succession of tall tales. Oddly enough, Woman's Own turns out to be the spiritual equivalent of the Ramayana. No doubt about it, the editors of Essentials have a tough job ahead of them.

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With a fresh instalment of his autobiography due, and a directorship of Norwich City Football Club lately negotiated, Stephen Fry has been all over the local media recently, the subject of newspaper profiles and admiring magazine articles about his local roots. But how local is local? I had always assumed that Mr Fry, who was brought up at Booton Hall and won his Cambridge scholarship from Norwich City College, was one of us, but a reproving letter in the Eastern Daily Press will have none of it. In fact, the correspondent points out, Mr Fry was born in Hampstead and is technically a Londoner. And so, if it comes to that, is Norfolk's other great ambassador, Delia Smith. It was all painfully reminiscent of the Punch cartoon in which a tourist hails two gnarled ancients on a village green near Fakenham with the remark "I expect you gentlemen have lived here a long time". "That's right sir," the first ancient agrees, with a contemptuous glance at his friend. "I've been here since afore the railways come. He's only been here since Beeching took 'em away."

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