DJ Taylor: Status symbols...or why the old left just can't move on from Maggie

Assassination jokes and other Labour rib-ticklers; a certain football tournament makes itself felt in unexpected places; and why I love Status Quo
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The Independent Online

The influence that Baroness Thatcher continues to exert over the body politic was much in evidence last week. The lady herself was seen taking tea with David Cameron at No 10.

Elsewhere, she found her name invoked at the Labour leadership hustings – a hot ticket, by all accounts – by the left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell. Mr McDonnell, who has since abandoned his campaign on the grounds of inadequate support, was asked what single act he thought would have improved life in 1980s Britain. He replied: "I was on the GLC that Mrs Thatcher abolished. I worked for the National Union of Mineworkers and we had the NUM strike. I think I'd assassinate Thatcher." Mr McDonnell later explained that his comments were meant "as a joke".

The Labour left's attempts to re-write history according to its own hereditary myths are always highly amusing. I was a Labour-supporting Londoner in the mid-1980s and I seem to recall widespread dissatisfaction with the GLC – even among Labour moderates – owing to its habit of favouring the interests of the variety of minority groups who were its most vocal supporters, over those of Londoners as a whole. In much the same way, Mrs Thatcher is always accused of "destroying" the NUM, but the NUM, surely, was destroyed by its autocratic leader, Arthur Scargill, who declined to hold a strike ballot, and the disinclination of thousands of miners to support him.

Meanwhile, pop-eyed sniping at Mrs T and all her works is one of the dreariest features of the left-liberal media. The right, for some reason, nearly always manages to reach some kind of accommodation with its bogey figures – see, for example, the sympathetic write-ups that Tony Benn receives in almost all newspapers – but on the left the grocer's daughter from Grantham is still regarded as the political equivalent of Countess Bathory. On the same day that Mr McDonnell made his little joke, I picked up a copy of The Guardian listings guide and read what "JW" had to say about BBC4's rerun of Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley. "Here's a problem for anyone who watched helpless in the 1980s as Thatcher spouted her poison: a drama that makes you like the woman." Clearly if "JW" ever gets tired of TV listings, a brilliant future awaits him (or her) as one of Mr McDonnell's speech-writers. No doubt about it, though, on the day after Mrs Thatcher's death is announced, I shall be giving The Guardian letters page a pretty wide berth.

*****

With the World Cup launched on its glittering, month-long passage, the country's radio stations resound to the hum of phone-in programmes, where Kevin from Macclesfield and Ray from Devizes offer their reflections on the health of England's back four, the advantages of 4-4-2 and other topics. By chance, I was talking to a Radio 4 producer last week when You and Yours (not a sports programme, but the same principle applies) began to filter over the airwaves. The producer shook her head. "Those phone-in shows never work," she declared. All this confirmed a truth long known to anyone who works in the media, which is that, by and large, its senior executives are not terribly interested in the views of the people who listen to their programmes or buy their newspapers. The incoming editor of a national newspaper, who had better remain nameless, once confided to me that his most earnest, if unrealisable, wish was to get rid of his letters page.

The problem, alas, is that one can see both the producer and the editor's point. In principle, audience participation is a wonderful thing – what the late Nicholas Walter, an indefatigable writer of letters to newspapers, used to call "a democratic intervention". In practice, the bore making his presence felt on a radio phone-in is one of the great modern stereotypes, and the letters columns of regional newspapers are invariably colonised by zealots quoting biblical texts in disparagement of homosexuality. Here in Norfolk the local BBC station sponsors a post-match phone-in whose compere, the former Norwich City player Neil Adams, has several times complained of the stupidity of the fans who ring in. Much as you sympathise with Mr Adams, or the editor of the Daily X, or anyone who has ever listened to Barry from Hartlepool addressing the merits of zonal marking, there is nothing to do but grit one's teeth: democracy demands it.

*****

And with the coming of the World Cup emerges what might be called its collateral effect – the way in which nearly every activity currently taking place in the UK is lashed to the lumbering juggernaut of football. Thus the latest batch of data from the British Retail Consortium, showing a 21.9 per cent increase in the sale of television sets, is instantly ascribed to "the World Cup effect", while "experts" have predicted that the event "could offer further retail cheer, with the potential for a much-needed boost to shopper confidence if England enjoy a long run in the tournament". Meanwhile, the Flower Council of Holland has suggested that British men will spend £4.25m on bouquets for their partners as "apology gifts" for neglecting them in favour of the news from South Africa. Not to be outdone, the insurance company Aviva has warned that it expects a 25 per cent increase in claims for broken windows caused by over-enthusiastically kicked footballs.

Even more dispiriting, perhaps, is the fact that conspicuously not to show an interest in the World Cup is to take up a position by default: weekend magazines, for example, positively bristle with leisure tips for the indifferent. Looking at the tournament in the round, not to mention the other tournaments that preceded it, it is difficult not to believe that the sense of collective national purpose is horribly overstated. Reference books always quote the 28 million UK viewers who watched the 1966 World Cup final. But what about the other 45 per cent of the population? What were they doing? In the last resort, nearly every human activity, short of eating, sleeping and defecating, is a minority interest.

*****

To monitor the fallout from Sir Terry Leahy's resignation as CEO of Tesco was to be struck, once again, by the altogether ominous efficiency of the company's PR machine. I caught up with the news on PM, where salvo after salvo of corporate self-glorification was being lofted out over the public's heads. Sir Terry (pictured right), sounding rather like some ancient spiritual leader in fading health, remarked that his mission was nearly complete. His predecessor, Lord MacLaurin, did his bountiful old softie routine to great effect and reminded us that Sir Terry's replacement had started stacking boxes for the company at the tender age of 15. A suggestion from Eddie Mair that Tesco had its critics was met with the usual bromides about the British resentment of success.

But where, one wondered, was any mention of all the other things Tesco is famous for – its steam-rollering of opposition to its plans, its legal browbeatings, its constant squeezing of its suppliers' margins? Almost every year here in Norwich we have our Tesco row: a site falling vacant, local uproar, devious judicial manoeuvrings, eventual triumph, and another gas station turned into Tesco-town to the ruin of the independent retail trade. Somehow all this would be easier to bear if the protagonists conformed to type. A villainous capitalist ought to be a villainous capitalist, you feel. It is all the stuff about missions being nearly complete that sticks in your throat.

*****

I was horribly amused by this week's news from Brighton, where the council leader has been compelled to write an open letter to the veteran rock group Status Quo, apologising for a website advertisement for four new executive posts. A banner across the top of the homepage warned that "Status Quo fans need not apply". The council has said that it wanted to "stand out from the crowd" and attract candidates with "brilliant and original ideas".

For some reason local authorities nearly always shoot themselves in the foot with droll ideas of this kind. There was a corking set-to some years ago when a council in the Midlands advertised for a new senior librarian using a picture of some silence-enjoining 1950s dragon beneath the caption "Sorry, Edna – no need to apply", only for a deluge of newspaper articles maintaining that "Edna" was just the kind of librarian most library users wanted to see around the place. As someone whose formative years were spent nodding my head to such masterpieces of the 12-bar form as "Caroline" and "Roll Over, Lay Down", I can assure Brighton and Hove City Council that most Quo fans will be distinguished by their maturity, tenacity and imperturbability in the face of ridicule. You could do a great deal worse.

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