DJ Taylor: The West's days are numbered, ask any BBC history hunk

Anglo-French goodwill? Obama checked? It's all change, but at least footie managers still talk daft

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To any student of 21st-century geo-politics last week's two main news stories will have seemed ominous in the extreme.

First we had Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy announcing the creation of a landmark Anglo-French defence alliance taking in everything from shared aircraft carriers to nuclear warhead development and rapid reaction forces. Then there was the Republican quasi-triumph in the US mid-term elections, which saw the Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives and half-a-dozen Senate seats besides. If one or two of the "mama grizzlies" of the fruitcake right failed to secure a mandate for such enlightened schemes as leaving the United Nations and abolishing social security, then it was still a pretty good evening for Joe Sixpack, "limited government" and the confidence trick that is US exceptionalism.

What unites these two phenomena, for all that they took place several thousand miles apart, is their common symbolism – further evidence, if any were needed, of the long, slow, continuance of Western decline. Each, naturally, was talked up in the most positive terms. Mr Cameron diagnosed "pragmatism", when what he really meant was "economy". One couldn't help noticing, for example, that the French have a single aircraft carrier, the ageing Charles de Gaulle. The incoming House majority leader John Boehner proclaimed that the Republican surge had only one victor, and that was the American people. Of course, US politicians have to say these things, just as their British counterparts have to feign an interest in popular culture. All the same, you rather wanted to draw Mr Boehner's attention to the deep undercurrents of unease and insecurity that Tuesday night's results brought to the surface.

Theories about the "decline of the West" go back at least as far as Oswald Spengler, whose book of that name was published as long ago as 1918. At their heart lies a realisation that the West will ultimately be destroyed by the very thing that gave it power – economic liberalism, exported to developing nations who are a great deal less fearful of its implications than the people who created it.

With hindsight, any American leader from 30 years ago who had the economic interests of the West at heart should have done his damnedest to keep the Cold War going and the Iron Curtain in place, simply as a means of maintaining fiscal precedence. The interesting question, perhaps, is how long we will retain our cultural superiority. If the West continues, albeit narrowly, to dominate the planet, then it does so by a kind of sleight-of-hand, in which language and, to a certain extent, sport and popular art, paper over some of the gaping economic fissures that lurk beneath.

***

Evidence of the injurious effects of alcohol comes round as regularly as Ann Widdecombe's spirited performances on Strictly Come Dancing, yet the conclusions of Professor David Nutt's new report were eye-catching even by the standards of a notably lurid genre. Professor Nutt maintains that, while heroin and crack cocaine are capable of causing the most serious personal injury, the cumulative effects of strong drink, direct and indirect, make it the most harmful drug currently available to the British public, and a licence for wrecked livers, smashed-up town centres, fractured families and premature death.

For some reason the response to studies of this kind is always the same. A tribe of health-care professionals and police officers rises up to demand a crackdown on binge drinking and an end to "below cost" supermarket promotions, to be instantly followed by those liberal-minded citizens – not always connected to the drinks industry – who believe that such sanctions would penalise "the responsible drinker". I have never quite been able to see the virtue of this argument. Say, for example, that the "responsible drinker" puts away two six-packs of lager a week and that he buys them from Hangovers R Us at £5 a time. Say, then, that the Government compels retailers to sell the packs at not less than £7. This would cost our specimen toper an extra 33p per drink, in weekly terms about the cost of a return bus-fare, and a fairly small price to pay for the general benefits (fewer drunks, less cirrhosis etc) that would ensue.

Even more depressing is the idea – common to nearly every attempt to improve people's health, safety and general well-being – that some kind of libertarian principle is at stake. On Wednesday, for example, the Daily Mail was heralding the arrival on these shores of "the scariest speed camera of all".

Apparently this new trailer-mounted device not only calculates your speed but can tell whether or not you are wearing a seat-belt, if your tax disc is out of date, and how close you are to the vehicle in front. Why is this "scary"? I can't wait for one to be installed on Norwich's Newmarket Road where, each afternoon, nervous schoolchildren can be seen cowering at the kerbside looking vainly for a chance to cross as the speeding traffic thunders by.

***

Waiting for News at Ten the other night, I came across a trailer for Ancient Worlds, a BBC2 series that begins this week. Dr Richard Miles, who presents, is one of those reliably hunky BBC history types who can be found striding through the remains of bygone pleasure gardens and frowning at pieces of antique statuary. His message to the prospective viewer was wholly reassuring. "It's not the story of the ancient world," he declared. "It's the story of us then."

The beliefs that lay dormant in this 14-word sentence seemed so absolutely central to the BBC's conception of "history" that I sat down and began to tease them out. Essentially, they are to do with empathy. Television viewers, we infer, can't be expected to watch a programme about the past unless it can be established that the people walking around in it were just like them. But this is a bogus empathy, for the people in the past can't be too like us, for fear of undermining that assumption of the present's innate superiority to the past that runs through history TV like the lettering in a stick of rock.

Interestingly, the same note was struck by Radio 4's recent A History of the World in 100 Objects. Though engagingly fronted by the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, this, it might be argued, had two abiding flaws. The first was its well-nigh Whiggish insistence on "progress". The second was its suggestion that the inhabitants of the ancient world, for all their primitivism, were really "just like us". Cue anachronistic accounts of Tanzanian axe-carvers "exchanging ideas" and "gossiping" as if they were office clerks grouped around the coffee machine. I'm all for history on TV but why, just for once, can't the past have a life of its own?

Several newspaper columnists were unreasonably amused by the revelation that Cherie Blair has paid £1,000 for a miniature painting of herself in which she is depicted as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yet more amusement was provoked by the news that the artist, Alice Instone, has executed several other commissions in this line: portraying the singer Annie Lennox as Elizabeth I, the actress Emilia Fox as Marie Antoinette and the writer India Knight as Catherine de Medici.

What one wants to know, of course, is whether Ms Instone's celebrity sitters chose these representations for themselves or whether they were imposed from on high. One of the great unwritten rules of life, after all, is that people who incline to bygone role models invariably come a terrific cropper. Evelyn Waugh is once supposed to have said that he thought himself rather like Jonathan Swift, only without the bossiness. This led a friend to remark that Waugh had some claims to be the most bossy man who ever lived. Personally, I have never really got over a friend's allegation that, in a school production of Twelfth Night, while playing the preening and puritanical steward Malvolio, I was "typecast".

***

One gets used to the enigmatic, if not downright incomprehensible, remarks uttered by soccer managers. Only the other week we had Sir Alex Ferguson declaring, apropos the Rooney saga, that sometimes the cow in the next field looked better than your own cow. Altogether trumping this, though, came the former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez's claim, with reference to his successor Roy Hodgson, that "some people can't see a priest on a mountain of sugar". Was this some ancient Castilian adage? The reference books seemed to think not. In the end, I managed to work out that Benitez was criticising Hodgson for not being able to discern the obvious, but it is a pity that the New Statesman can't re-animate its famous competition for meaningless proverbs ("Gloves make a poor present for a man with no hands", "He digs deepest who deepest digs" etc), as the current Internazionale supremo would clean up.

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