DJ Taylor: Myths, legends and illiberal sentiment

Progressives are heading for a bloody nose in the AV referendum, as Britain gears up for another bout of symbolic national emoting

Share
Related Topics

Scanning the polls in advance of next month's referendum on voting reform, one senses the prospect of a rare defeat for the forces of progressive opinion at the hands of what progressive opinion would probably mark down as unenlightened conservatism.

Should this defeat come to pass – and opponents of AV now seem to exceed supporters by around 10 percentage points – it will be all the rarer for being sustained at the ballot box: a luxury not always allowed in this wonderfully democratic age.

Which is to say that most of progressive opinion's triumphs are generally achieved by subterfuge, their good intentions sometimes obscuring the fact that the majority of the population were opposed to them at the time of their introduction.

At bottom, this reduces to the ancient liberal dilemma of whether politicians should attempt to lead public opinion into desirable areas where it might not actively want to stay, or simply reflect the prejudices and idées fixes of the day. It is sometimes forgotten that many enlightened measures of the 1960s, from divorce reform to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, were carried through in the teeth of public opposition. Distance softened this hostility, and the politicians who supported the late Roy Jenkins at the Home Office could congratulate themselves on having done the right thing, even if it was unpopular at the time.

But however tolerant we are of divorce, homosexuality or half a dozen outrages that the society of the immediate post-war era would have abominated, there is one area of our national life where progressive opinion will always be fighting a rearguard action, and that is Britain's membership of the EU.

No liberal-minded politician has been able to convince a majority that entry was a good thing, or that the cross-party consensus of the 1975 referendum "Yes" campaign didn't bully the electorate into acquiescence. This suspicion is bolstered by the history books. Dominic Sandbrook's recent State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974, for example, reveals that Edward Heath glossed over the implications for sovereignty during entry negotiations, otherwise he would not have got the measures through. But, the gentleman in Whitehall always did know best.

***

The Tottenham Hotspur manager, Harry Redknapp, was in characteristically philosophical mood during an interview for Wednesday's Independent. He was especially irked by radio phone-ins and listeners' readiness to criticise, should a team underperform.

"You lose a few games and you have someone calling the radio station saying 'they were rubbish today, useless.' If people ring up I switch over and put Magic FM on and listen to a bit of music. Why would I want to listen to a bunch of idiots? They must have sad lives with nothing better to do."

In elaborating this complaint, Mr Redknapp was making an important point about the paradox of our modern, participative media. On the one hand, every newspaper and radio editor worth his salt wants "inclusiveness" and audience interaction. On the other, judged by one set of standards, a proportion of those responses will not be worth listening to. This eventually drives away large sections of the constituency who might usefully join in. There is no getting away from this, or the fact that the mass-participation culture to which all modern media now subscribe, though intended to bring people together, has the effect of forcing them further apart.

***

As royal wedding fever mounts, the shop windows groan with souvenirs, and the nation's republicans skulk miserably in their tents, the proportion of the country which regards Friday's ceremony as a profound embarrassment can console itself with the thought that Prince William and his bride are really only collateral for a range of much more complex emotions, caught up in a process whose human element is largely symbolic.

One could see this nine years ago when the Queen Mother died. When the news broke I happened to be walking down the high street of Moreton-in-Marsh. Suddenly, striding towards me, came Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, doubtless up for a weekend in his Cotswolds cottage. "I expect you've been on the phone to London," I remarked. "I told them not to lead with it," he replied. And here, one felt, he had made a mistake, for the Queen Mother's passing provoked a tidal wave of sentiment, quite a lot of which, you felt, had comparatively little to do with the deceased herself.

Naturally this process can work negatively, throwing up figures who become a symbolic focus for all manner of resentments. I can remember, over 20 years ago, walking into a room where my father sat brooding over The Daily Telegraph. The cover displayed a picture of the soon-to-be-released Nelson Mandela. Instantly, long-pent emotions broke to the surface: "I hate him," my father yelled. Of course, he did not hate Mandela. He hated the creeping modernity that he imagined Mandela to symbolise. In much the same way, Prince William needn't suppose that many of the people acclaiming his marriage are cheering for him.

***

On the day of George Orwell's funeral in January 1950, his friend Malcolm Muggeridge sat reading the obituaries by, among others, Arthur Koestler and V S Pritchett, and feeling that he saw in them "how the legend of a human being is created". I had much the same sensation on Tuesday, attending the event sponsored by the Man Booker Prize in memory of the late Dame Beryl Bainbridge: five times short-listed but never its winner, and now ripe for a posthumous award. The garland was eventually claimed by her 1998 novel, Master Georgie.

Only nine months dead, Beryl is already lost to the realms of myth: a writer of titanic accomplishment, naturally, but also the woman who mis-took the Queen for Dame Vera Lynn and hob-nobbed drunkenly with her consort; who drank half a bottle of whisky before a festival appearance and was several times hospitalised with nicotine poisoning.

But presumably there was another Beryl who went home to her children, wrote her books and got on with the business of leading what doesn't, on the face of it, sound an easy life. Perhaps, in the end, this doesn't matter very much, unless you happen to be one of her descendants – artists, after all, have been mythologised ever since art began. On the other hand, it would be nice if writers were allowed the privilege that the best of them grant their characters – a life of their own.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?