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DJ Taylor: Sixties liberalism is back, and fighting fit

The old buzz phrases 'moral responsibility' and 'personal duty' are being revived by the Occupy protesters

Asked to come up with a Book of the Year selection for a weekly magazine, I found my gaze settling on A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, the collected stories of Margaret Drabble. Written for the most part in the Sixties and Seventies – for Ms Drabble was a precocious young talent – the pieces constitute a seminal text in the development of post-war English liberalism. Full of bright, nervy, upwardly mobile young women not unlike Ms D herself, they turn infallibly on the correct way to behave, on the nature of moral responsibility, on how to get the best deal for yourself without denying it to anyone else in your immediate orbit.

At the same time, without overdoing the level of philosophical attack, they also advertise a sort of moral anguish, the anxiety of people who find ethical judgements, or indeed any sort of judgements, difficult to make. Their characters sit in Moroccan restaurants worrying about whether they should eat the supplementary snacks set out with their drinks (do they come gratis? Does it matter if they don't?), and how they should react to the tribe of beggars who flock to this tourist honeypots (annoying, intrusive, but poor and therefore a source of shame), fearing that they earn too much, that the choices they make are based on self-interest rather than collective need. Their lives, frankly, are a bit of a strain.

The funniest – and also the most sinister – exposés of this approach to life were offered by the late Malcolm Bradbury, notably in The History Man (1975), which poses that classic liberal's question: how far can we tolerate something that, if tolerated, will cease to tolerate us? Posy Simmonds's Guardian cartoons about the right-thinking and conscience-stricken Weber family struck a similar, though gentler line. Not up to the fighting weight of either renascent Conservatism or the troglodyte Marxist left, Sixties liberalism was one of the first casualties of the late Seventies consensus collapse, and despite the continued existence of something calling itself a Liberal Party has been in bad shape ever since.

Monitoring the tent encampments lined up in the major British cities and the activities of the Occupy Wall Street movement (American liberalism, as ever, proving to be a much more muscular entity than our own brand), you have a sneaking feeling that, against considerable odds, this way of looking at the world is making a comeback, and that seductive abstracts such as "moral responsibility" and "personal duty" are taking on a new importance. Naturally, none of this is, as yet, party political, but there is a tantalising prospect – if, of course, Mr Miliband can get his act together – that it soon might be.

Several newspapers were exercised by a poll conducted among 1,000 eight- to 13-year-olds which revealed startling gaps in their historical knowledge. According to the survey carried out by the company Daughters of History, four-fifths of those questioned thought that the Battle of Britain was a TV talent show, while only 19 per cent knew that the Tudors were a historical royal family, and at least one child believed them to be a brand of crisps.

However disquieting these gaffes, it would be wrong to read too much into this chasm of pre-teen ignorance, if only because social commentators have been fretting about it for centuries. Victorian school stories are awash with inky-fingered urchins who scarcely know that the earth goes round the sun. There is a dreadful scene in Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), presumably based on some of his own teaching experiences, in which Dorothy Hare, the solitary staff member of a moribund West London private school, divines that her charges know nothing about anything ("They had never heard of Robin Hood, never played at Cavaliers and Roundheads..."). Asked when motor cars were invented, one 10-year-old ventures: "About a thousand years ago, by Columbus."

Much of the historical evidence suggests that ignorance of history, art and culture is practically endemic, that 10,000 David Starkey clones distributed among the nation's schools can do nothing about it, and that it just has to be borne. On the other hand, coming home on the train the other night, even I felt moved to intervene, when a teenage boy, earnestly discussing the question of "style", suddenly demanded of his chum: "So, who is Paul Weller then?"

One always imagined that the film director Lars von Trier was a difficult man to work with, but conclusive evidence of this has now been provided by the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Ms Gainsbourg claims to have resented the emotional demands made on her during post-production work on Melancholia and in particular the director's complaint that hers were not "real tears".

All this suggests that, quite apart from being an exacting taskmaster, Von Trier has a deeply peculiar view of art. By and large, actresses do not cry "real tears", at least not on film sets. Anyone can do that, given a cut-up onion. On the contrary, they are judged by their ability to feign emotion. Acting, like novel writing, is about imposture rather than cinema-vérité. After all, if I came across a novelist who maintained that, to write a scene in which a character reacts to severe physical exhaustion, he first had to run five miles, I should think he was an idiot. Going back to Ms Gainsbourg's travails, would Von Trier want a scene in one of his films in which a character descends into madness to be played by a genuine madman? You have a horrible feeling that he might think this was rather a good idea.

Delivering this year's Orwell Memorial Lecture, The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger declared last week that one of his remedies for the current state of the British press was "a regulator with teeth". He then called for the reconfiguration of the Press Complaints Commission into something called the PSMC: the Press Standards and Mediation Commission.

As a procedural slogan, "regulator with teeth" struck me as almost infinitely extendable to other areas of public life. Why not wish some incisors on that most toothless of watchdogs, the Advertising Standards Authority? Why not drag the Football Association into the 21st century (to be fair to the Government, this process has been set in train)? Why not throw open the doors of the Law Society and the Bar Council to a wind of public scrutiny? I was especially taken with a passage at the end of Rusbridger's lecture, which noted that the News of the World's private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, had been paid the substantial sum of £100,000 for his work, without the money ever showing up in the firm's accounts. So much for regulation there.