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

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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.

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