DJ Taylor: Pull the other one, Harriet

Labour thinks its 'better behaviour' is what got it into trouble with voters but, as with 'competition' and 'privacy', some claims don't bear too much scrutiny

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The most depressing moment of the European election results came not when the BNP's Nick Griffin marched up to the microphone to deliver his victory speech, but when Harriet Harman attempted to play the moral card.

Why was it, David Dimbleby inquired, as they sat discussing the Government's rout at the polls, that whereas both Labour and the Conservatives were horribly enmired in the expenses scandal, the Conservative vote had held up while Labour's had collapsed? Well, Ms Harman brightly volunteered, you see the average voter expected the Tories to have their snouts plunged permanently in the trough; it was the fact that they presumed the Labour Party would behave better that made them so cross.

I am afraid that when I heard this apologia I very nearly laughed out loud, for in the mind of most students of recent political history the words "municipal socialism" and "corruption" leap together like iron filings obeying the magnet's call. Granted, the Poulson scandal of the 1960s – when numbers of the party's finest in the North-east were found to have taken backhanders from a venal architect – is four decades old, but has Ms Harman forgotten South Yorkshire's "Donnygate" explosion, whose descending fragments still turn up occasionally in the "Rotten Boroughs" column of Private Eye? Anecdotal evidence of the habit of horny-handed sons of toil to cheat their constituents blind, once they are elected to office, is everywhere to hand.

My father used to talk in awed terms of the post-war activities of the Labour-dominated Norwich Trades Council. And bygone South Wales, one always gathered from people brought up there, was a kind of private fiefdom tyrannised by the entity known as the "Taffia". A friend of mine, whose father applied for a teaching job in Merthyr in the 1960s, remembered his having to call on the local Labour MP, Mr SO Davies, to get the great man's say-so.

What made the Harman defence even worse was the genuine air of conviction with which she managed to bring it out. But it is quite as disingenuous in its way as Mr Griffin's curious belief that his party isn't racist and has the country's best interests at heart.

***

One of the great cant words of the 21st century, prolonged exposure to government propaganda always insists, is "competition". European legislation promotes it; Competition Commissions are on hand to enforce it; the Office of Fair Trading rises constantly to talk up its merits.

At the same time, one can think of half a dozen areas of our national economic life in which competition is not so much neutralised by the vested interests involved as actively discouraged. For example, how much genuine competition is there in the world of satellite sports broadcasting, with Setanta on the point of bankruptcy and Ofcom so curiously reluctant to investigate Sky's stranglehold on the market?

The same point, unhappily enough, can be made of the world of publishing, which awoke this week to the news that WH Smith's travel bookshops – all 450 of them – have signed an exclusive deal with Penguin that will exclude from Smith's shelves all travel books published by Penguin's competitors. The faintly mitigating thought that at least Penguin's authors must be doing well out of this was extinguished by reports that WH Smith will be levying a punitive 72 per cent discount on stock, with a consequent decrease in royalties.

The really distressing thing about this stitch-up is that it could so very easily be stopped: after all, if every author involved instructed his or her agent to complain, the scheme would fall apart and Penguin would look extremely foolish.

Meanwhile, any travellers who believe in the idea of a level commercial playing field are advised to stock up on their guidebooks before they reach the airport.

***

There was huge excitement in cyberspace last week when an outfit called Global Language Monitor announced that the English language would soon be acquiring its millionth word. Apparently the company tracks the appearance of neologisms on the web: 25,000 hits brings authentication, and the statistical upshot is that a new word is minted every 98 minutes. Sure enough, within hours of the preliminary announcement the millionth word declared itself: "Web 2.0" – not actually a word, I should have thought – with "slumdog" breathing down its neck.

Like many another lexicographical obsessive, I instantly wrote this off as a publicity stunt. Were they counting archaisms, all those wonderful expressions that slipped into the language half a millennium ago and then for some reason slunk out of it again in the 1800s? Were they counting words and phrases that had changed their meaning over time to create fresh usages? Reading early-Victorian novels, I always used to be puzzled by characters who claimed "not to half like" someone, which in the 1840s meant what it literally says (ie, "on a scale of one to 10 I like him less than five"), but by the 1860s had mutated into its polar opposite.

And what about words with variant, and sometimes entirely different, meanings? After all, one of the incidental amusements of the famous scene in Blackadder – when Baldrick, asked if he knows what "irony" means, answers that it is like "goldy" or "bronzy" – is that Baldrick is, strictly speaking, bang on the money: the subsidiary Oxford English Dictionary definition is "like iron". Clearly cyberspace has a long way to go before it can claim to be seriously interfering with the word-hoard.

***

The writer I felt most sorry for this week – apart from Penguin's hapless travel writers – was the Carnegie medal-winning children's author Melvin Burgess. Mr Burgess, no stranger, as they say, to controversy, what with his tales of underage sex and heroin addiction, has recently completed a memoir of his adolescence, only to have it turned down by his publisher, the Andersen Press, on legal grounds.

The sticking point seems to have been a fear that Burgess's account of what he and his friends got up to in their rumbustious teens might fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes a privacy clause stating that "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". Burgess's publisher, Klaus Flugge, feels that "the invasion of privacy clause makes it harder to publish memoirs" and is "having a significant effect" on their commissioning.

Most professional writers, you feel, would sympathise with Mr Burgess, believing that as well as having a right to privacy, people are entitled to write honestly about their lives and the collateral who wander around in it. As for that prohibition on having your correspondence bruited about, only the other week I handed over two crisp little notes, once sent to me, from Martin Amis to his biographer with a remarkably clear conscience. The letters were about a televised dramatisation of one of his father's novels; in any case – see the recent kiss-and-tell memoir by Julie Kavanagh in which he colluded – large parts of his life are lived out in public.

Then again, the process by which real people are rendered down into print is not always as straightforward as the European Convention imagines. Some years ago, at a Laurie Lee commemoration held at Gloucester Town Hall, the compère announced that, as a special treat, at a moment preceded by the dimming and raising of the lights, the original of "Rosie" in Cider with Rosie would declare herself. The lights came up, whereupon no fewer than three elderly ladies clambered gamely to their feet.

***

Like many another fan of what now gets called the "Canterbury sound" tradition in English popular music, I raised a metaphorical glass to the passing of Hugh Hopper, who died last week at the age of 64. Hopper, he of the devious time-signature (was that 17/8 the lads were playing in, or even 25/4?) and the extraordinary contrapuntal bass lines of the early Soft Machine albums (inset far left), fell into a rather familiar musical category – rock legends one wished one had caught up with a bit earlier in their career.

I saw him on stage only once, four years ago in a venue the size of a small scout hut, as one third of a trio that included the late Elton Dean on saxello, and the free jazz racket they kicked up sounded so uncannily like a series of conflated solos recorded in hermetically sealed rooms that even the promoter was discovered to have left the building.

Curiously, these deficiencies didn't matter. He was Hugh Hopper, just as the Fall's Mark E Smith, however crapulously detached from the lyric sheet, is still Mark E Smith, and in his absence a small quadrant of our pop heritage will never be the same again.

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