DJ Taylor: The vision thing is too much to ask

It is a miracle that Parliament and broadcasting stagger on at all, let alone that they break new ground


It was a bad week both for the Government and for one or two of the institutions nestled beneath its supposedly protective wing. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, declared that the administration of which he is such a gallant ornament lacked – that fatal word – "vision". Meanwhile, a committee of MPs bidden to survey the workings of the BBC concluded that the corporation was "unambitious" – and, among other failings, had come up with insufficiently imaginative plans to cut costs and increase revenues from its commercial operations.

Whatever one may think about the Prime Minister, it was possible to feel a pang of sympathy when Mr Cable and his accusations burst into view. The idea that politicians need a "vision" has become integral to the modern political process, or rather to that process's publicity machine, and yet "visions", by and large, do nothing but harm to the politicians charged with devising them. Harold Wilson's flannel about "the white heat" of the technological revolution is still a standing joke nearly 50 years after it was first dealt out. To take a more modern version, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently treading water in the polls, has been forced to come up with a "vision", and it involves complaining about immigrants.

From the wider historical angle, you could be forgiven for believing that a government's ambitions for itself nearly always exist in inverse proportion to ministers' ability to carry them out, and that we would be better off returning to the Victorian model, in which governments were expected not to make eye-catching promises but merely to govern. There is a rather revealing moment at the end of Trollope's The Prime Minister (1876), in which Plantagenet Palliser, his spirit broken on the wheel of press abuse, confides to his colleague the Duke of St Bungay that he believes himself to be a failure.

Nonsense, the Duke assures him. Whatever he may or may not have accomplished, Her Majesty's Government has been carried on, and that is an achievement in itself. It is the same with the "unambitious" BBC. Most television, after all, is so awful that simply to possess a public service broadcasting company that makes the odd decent programme is a triumph of a sort.

Still with Harold Wilson, and indeed the BBC, the fanfare that announced BBC2's new drama series White Heat, which began in a London flatshare in 1965, reminded me of one of my favourite socio-historical theories. This is that the 1960s, or rather the 1960s as conceived in the popular imagination, really only happened in two or three square miles of central London, and that the visions of them – that word again – peddled by the 21st-century media are pretty much a mythical construct.

It takes only a moment or two among the contemporary sources to deduce that an era popularly regarded as the age of the Beatles, the Stones, hippies, free love and liberation, was anything but. The bestselling LP of the decade, for example, was neither Sergeant Pepper nor Let it Bleed but The Sound of Music. The original hippies pronounced the movement dead as early as 1967 when the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco became a tourist attraction. Western governments grew more right wing as the epoch progressed – see Nixon's presidential victory and the Gaullist landslide of 1968 – while nearly every enlightened adjustment to the UK statute book, from divorce reform to decriminalising homosexuality, was carried through in the teeth of public opposition.

And if the King's Road boutiques were stuffed to the gills with fab gear, English provincial life went on practically unchanged. I can remember, as a child of six or seven, standing at a bus stop when the wearer of the first miniskirt seen in Norwich came diffidently into view. This produced a volley of the most exquisitely satirical comment from the middle-aged women standing by ("That girl wants to cover her legs up" etc.) Even in the metropolis, you sometimes feel, the ornate convolutions of zeitgeist went unnoticed. I once asked a friend who had spent 1964-70 disporting himself in Chelsea what the Sixties were like. "I don't know" he lamented. "I woke up one morning and they were over." With any luck the next volume of David Kynaston's mammoth history of post-war Britain will dispel some of these quaint illusions.

It was also a bad week for Eric Joyce, Labour MP for Falkirk, who spent the early part of it denying that he had conducted a relationship with a teenage volunteer and the later part of it in court on an assault charge arising out of last month's unfortunate incident in the Strangers' Bar of the House of Commons. Mr Joyce's decision to retire from parliament at the next election, but to go on collecting his salary in the interim, illustrates the difficulties involved in getting rid of an honourable member who has disgraced himself. He (or she) can be disowned by his constituency party; he can be suspended from the House. Expulsion, on the other hand, is extraordinarily hard to bring off, however great the degree of embarrassment caused.

Take, for example, Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, the flagrantly pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Tory MP for Peebles, who was interned in Holloway as a subversive in May 1940. As Ramsay could think of no reason why he should resign, he continued to send in parliamentary questions – these covered such topics as the number of Jewish servicemen killed in the war – from his cell. On his release in September 1944, he presented himself at Westminster as if nothing had happened and continued to haunt its corridors until the election of 1945. Clearly, however hard it may be for his constituents to dislodge him, Mr Joyce has some way to go.

Row of the week involved the American novelist Jonathan Franzen and several hundred thousand Twitter users. Mr Franzen, who remarked that "Twitter is unspeakably irritating" and that it stood for "everything I oppose" shortly afterwards became the butt of a twitter hashtag #Jonathan Franzenhates. In terms of publicity Mr Franzen has been rather subtle: by taking a stand against social networking, he has defined himself in its terms, with all the advantages this entails.

Philosophically, however, his hostility is futile. In a world dominated by social media, to refuse to play its game is to be forced to play it by default. One might as well lie down on a newly built motorway. In much the same way, most of the aesthetes of a century ago who went around proclaiming their ideological detachment were all too aware of the shakiness of their position. "Art for art's sake" is quite as much a political statement as "All property is theft".

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