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

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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home