DJ Taylor: Remembrances of a powerful alliance: toffs and the working classes

The Primrose League, founded in 1883 in memory of Disraeli, lasted until 2004; the appeal of 'Tory democracy' can take one by surprise

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The news that one of the country's leading institutions – Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs – is sunk in administrative torpor has all the novelty value of the Pope's urgently pressed Catholicism or the excretory habits of bears in woods. One expected a bad report, and yet the full statistical horror of HMRC's failure to serve the nation's taxpayers was so eye-catching that it was difficult to know where to start. The £11.2bn worth of tax that may have to be written off, perhaps? Or the extra £3bn of mispayments now identified in addition to the £3.8bn already reported? In the end I settled for the 44 million phone calls that apparently went unanswered last year, which works out at a whopping 176,000 a day.

Anyone who has worked in the City of London will have some sympathy for the HMRC foot soldiers, if not their gallant captains. Not only are the former both overworked and under-paid, but it must be particularly galling to spend most of your time being bamboozled by the ex-HMRC inspectors who are now employed at telephone-number salaries by the big professional services firms. On the other hand, public reaction to to last week's revelations of incompetence and drift offers a neat little snapshot of the relationship between the average UK citizen and the tax office, which is – at any rate from the citizen's point of view – based on resentment, suspicion and the presumption of bad faith.

The moral atmosphere surrounding the paying of tax in this country has always been peculiar, with the most law-abiding people, known for their probity and disinclination to leave a charity bucket unfilled, turning horribly devious in the presence of that bogey figure, "the taxman". The reason lies not in any wish to defraud, but in the widespread assumption that one will be treated unfairly. My accountant explained the calculations that produce my own tax bill as follows: "The average tax inspector has no idea how you earn your income or the nature of the expenses for which you may be liable. He simply goes by a certain income/expenditure ratio which HMRC thinks acceptable, and that's what you'd better come up with."

As for trying to correct one of HMRC's little errors, Augean stables were more easily turned out. Not long ago, after a scanner misread the figures on my VAT return, I received a refund amounting to 90 per cent of that quarter's payment. Several letters and a reimbursement later, I inquired of a helpful man in the Colchester office if the matter was now closed. Well, no, he reckoned: it was now up to me to contact the Grimsby office and make sure the figures had been recalibrated. Not quite seeing why I should have to put myself out to correct someone else's mistake, I rang the number offered perhaps half-a-dozen times before giving up in disgust. If, as we keep on hearing, George Osborne considers himself a reforming chancellor, then he could buttress his reputation no end by taking a scythe to an institution that makes the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit look like a model of speed and efficiency.



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A book that caught my eye last week was A Gift from the Churchills, Alistair Cooke's entertaining study of the Primrose League. One had always assumed that, like the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes or the League of Empire Loyalists, this "One Nation" Tory social club, founded in memory of Disraeli, had been swept away by the era of short skirts and loose morals: in fact, Cooke reveals that it survived as late as 2004. Pitched largely at the working man, with the aim of offering him a stake in the rather vague-sounding abstract known as "Tory democracy", the league turns out to have been one of the greatest success stories in British politics. Membership in 1910 stood at two million, out of an electorate of little more than seven million, which makes the pre-Great War Labour Party look like the tiniest of cliques.

Historians often maintain that the really serious alliance in recent British history has been between the aristocracy and the working class, united by their contempt for an aspiring bourgeoisie. Mr Cooke's book confirms another distinguishing mark of domestic politics, which is the habit of large numbers of the electorate to vote for politicians and parties whose interests sometimes seem diametrically opposed to their own. My grandmother, for instance, a lifelong working-class Tory, believed in the slogan "A fair day's work for a fair day's wage". It would have been useless to point out to her that "fairness" means different things to different people, and that a trade unionist might not define it in the same way as a mill-owner. On the other hand, there are greater swindles in politics than Tory paternalism. Anyone following the situation in the United States, where the Republican right racks up blue-collar votes against "Socialist" healthcare schemes, might think that Disraeli's heirs were not quite the cynics that left-wing legend sometimes imagines them to be.



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As a TV viewer whose sole acquaintance with BBC 1 is the Saturday night stake-out before Match of the Day, I was very excited by press previews of the Corporation's latest nod in the direction of literature. My Story, which began last week, "follows a panel of judges, including broadcaster Fergal Keane, and novelists Kate Mosse and Jenny Colgan, as they hear extraordinary true accounts of love, loss, triumph and tragedy". Apparently 7,500 people sent in their stories, and the 15 finalists will have the pleasure of talking about them with Maureen Lipman.

Encouraging as all this doubtless is, as well as fulfilling the BBC's usual requirement for a) celebrity, and b) audience participation, it does make you wonder why the Corporation can't run to a proper, dedicated books programme. Musing on this conspicuous hole in the schedules the other week, The Bookseller suggested that Mark Thompson and his henchmen probably feared that such a spot might be reckoned "elitist", which prompts the thought that if there is any activity less elitist than reading one would quite like to know what it is. Two other advantages of a books programme, here in the era of disintegrating budgets, are that it would be very cheap to make and that Mariella Frostrup would be absolutely delighted to present it.



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In the introduction to his recently published Oxford Book of Parodies, John Gross examines the claim that good parody is nearly always based on affection: the idea being that you have to be fond of a writer before you can enter into his or her spirit, as opposed to simply reproducing their mannerisms. "But this is too sunny a view of the matter," Gross concludes. "Many excellent parodies are undoubtedly motivated by exasperation or contempt. They are designed to annihilate."

Browsing through Craig Brown's new collection, The Lost Diaries, the other day I saw exactly what Gross means. It is not just that Brown clearly doesn't care for the work of such contemporary titans as Germaine Greer, but that his dislike doubles up as an exercise in literary criticism, in which the subject's (burlesqued) style is used as a weapon against them – Clive James, for instance, drowning himself in a deluge of wordplay, while whoever is being written about takes second place to the gargantuan figure of James himself. The same is true of Brown's account of Tony Benn being "ruthlessly ignored" by the press, which says more about its subject than half-a-dozen biographies.



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Last week's financial results included the news that, despite a "tough year", the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers increased its turnover to £2.3bn, with a profit before tax of £665m. By coincidence, it was a quarter of a century ago this week that PwC's predecessor firm Coopers & Lybrand became the first UK accountancy firm to record a £100m turnover (a fact that this then adornment of the marketing department was nearly sacked for revealing to Accountancy Age), which represents a whopping 23-fold increase in receipts in 25 years. All this brought back bracing memories of the firm's headquarters in Gutter Lane, EC2, a kind of compound of fear, misery and well-lunched middle-aged men with the letters FCA after their names laying down the law on matters not necessarily connected with accountancy. Interestingly, PwC's results also revealed that the average payout for each of its 820 partners was a momentous £759,000. What is it about chartered accountancy, which certain undergraduates of the early 1980s used to look down on as the last resort of the mediocre? Why should the ability to audit a chain of sweetshops or outmanoeuvre the taxman be so well paid? If there was anything missing from the manifestos of the current crop of Labour leadership hopefuls – and there was a great deal missing – it was a call for a maximum wage.

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