DJ Taylor: Voting from the heart

The fervour of American voters, as they enthusiastically put Barack Obama into the White House, distinguishes them from the disengaged British electorate

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It's a mark of Barack Obama's absolute ubiquity that, even during the Christmas period, his face should jump out of the newspapers on half-a-dozen occasions and for half-a-dozen different reasons.

There was, of course, his cabinet and the legislation it was dramatically poised to enact the moment Inauguration Day was passed. There was the continuing fallout from the scandal of weaselly Governor Blagojevich. Joining them came accounts of Mrs Obama's gym routines and the spectacle of her husband casting his grandmother's ashes off an Hawaiian rock, the whole dominated and, to a degree, defined by a question that has been exercising British commentators for the best part of six months: any chance of an Obama surrogate here?

The answer, you imagine, is "no". At the same time, the firmness of that negative has scarcely anything to do with race. One of the chief reasons why someone looking – and sounding – like Obama is unlikely to lead the Labour Party when the electors have had enough of Dunfermline's finest is that the gap between US and UK politics is so vast as to prohibit the skill and personality transfers required. The thing that struck most overseas observers about the US presidential election was not that it was won by a man with a brown skin – this in a country where as recently as 60 years ago nine states went for an openly segregationist ticket – but that the electorate was treating it with a seriousness absent from the British Isles since the mid-1970s. British electors – a few, flag-waving minorities notwithstanding – are notably short on fervour. They certainly wouldn't queue up for hours to exercise their democratic right and seldom exhibit much in the way of ideological conviction. Very occasionally, if the polling station isn't too far away, they might just dump a political party on grounds of economic mismanagement. It will be interesting to see if the fiscal shakedown of the next 12 months has any effect on this fundamental disengagement: I'd say that the chances were slightly less than Sarah Palin's of dislodging Obama in 2012.


One of the most entertaining books I read this year was The Hugo Young Papers (below, right), the late Guardian political commentator's account of three-and-a-half decades worth of lunch conversation with some of the shapers of our national destiny. The entertainment took two forms. On the one hand it was good to be reminded of how unutterably bizarre British politics was 30 years ago, a time when the opinions of Brother Bootle, general secretary of the Allied Union of Carpetfitters (and quite probably elected to that post on the votes of Tory trade unionists), were as least as influential in defining government policy as those of democratically elected Labour MPs. On the other, it was good to be reminded of what idiots politicians make of themselves when asked to predict the future. One of the hot restaurant topics of 1978, for instance, turns out to be the prospects of the now completely forgotten Sir Christopher Soames (left), a man for whom the stock description "Tory grandee of the old school" somehow fails to convey the altogether awesome level of patrician disdain on display (telephoned once by a constituency chairman with a seat to dispose of, Soames relayed instructions via his butler that the man should call back after lunch). Tony Benn's prophecies are a mix of astuteness and blithering inconsequentiality. But this kind of thing is par for the course. Benn's diaries from the 1997 general election register his alarm at the electoral prospects of Neil Hamilton at Tatton when faced with the independent candidacy of Martin Bell. Hamilton ("I have a sort of feeling he might do well") lost by 11,000 votes. In the same week, Woodrow Wyatt was attending to the excited shrieks of Sir Christopher Soames's son Nicholas to the effect that "We're going to win." The Labour majority was 165.


Reading the obituaries of the political theorist Sir Bernard Crick, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the discreet euphemisms one had thought driven from obituary writing by the greater openness on which we all pride ourselves are still going strong. Certainly there were several references to his "maverick individuality" and his "idiosyncratic" way of doing things. As one who attended many a committee meeting bossed by Sir Bernard (whose company, I should add, I delighted in) I knew exactly what was meant by his maverick individuality. It was the same with the folk musician Davy Graham and "the long periods of ill health" that retarded his career. Amusing as this is, it is still possible to detect a faint shift in the sensibilities of the obituary writer. In the old days it was the deceased's sexuality that had to be airbrushed into innocuousness ("He never married" = "gay"; "a buccaneering personality who appreciated the charms of the opposite sex" = "serial womaniser"). Nowadays sex is fine, whereas irruptions of temperament seem suspect. Or perhaps it is just that any specialised art form in the end encourages the development of an aesthetic whose effects are achieved by way of private code. When I worked in the City, we had competitions to see who could get away with the most bare-faced lie in the annual report and accounts. My own successes included "Here at X and Y we are determined to put back into the community something of what we take out" and "X and Y is committed to encouraging the personal fulfilment of all its employees". Of course, it may just be that X and Y's senior partner really believed all this garbage.


Reading Michael Grade's remarks last week about the difficulty of subsidising expensive TV costume dramas when the public apparently wants cheap reality shows, I was struck yet again by the chill egalitarian wind now sweeping through British media land, and the assumption that because 10 million people like something those 10 million people should be applauded for their taste. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the widespread misuse of the word "snobbish". Like the kind of novel that wins the Man Booker Prize? Think Jeremy Clarkson is a half-wit? Well then, you are a snob. Snobbishness used to be defined as "the assumption of a false superiority". Thus, a snob admires a duchess on the basis of her coronet, from which any moral qualities she may possess derive. But to prefer one novel to another because you think it superior on literary grounds, ie the grounds on which novels are conventionally esteemed, is simply to make a judgement. Most media pundits who complain about the paralysing influence of "snobs" are really only complaining about their own taste being found wanting, which is rather a different thing.


It is remarkable how little people complain as they watch culture's continuing destruction at the hands of technology. According to the latest news from the developers of television iPlayers, we are now several steps closer to TV heaven – the ability to watch practically any television show whenever we want to watch it. No doubt about it, this is a terrible idea. The important thing about Top of the Pops, the highlight of my teenage viewing, was that it was only on once a week: to watch it, you had to evade the half dozen contingencies that sedulously conspired to make you do something else. This, in the end, was what gave it value: a repeat, half-an-hour later, would have made it just another television programme. It is the same with iPods (although I should like to thank my wife for the gift of one). As the KLF's Bill Drummond points out in his recent book 17 (above, left), if every track that was ever recorded is instantly available to everybody, then music generally has no value. Musical "culture" becomes a kind of pick-and-mix counter in which the integrity of the artist, generally focused on the album, is sacrificed to the momentary caprice of the consumer. Over in the world of books, techno-wizards are getting very excited at the prospect of "interactive texts", through which readers can march wielding their cyber pencils. Don Quixote too long for you? Well, just jump in there and cut it down to size! After all the customer – the public libraries' new way of referring to their readers – is always right. And more choice is none at all.


The best Harold Pinter stories usually juxtaposed the flintiness of the political stance with the glamour of the lifestyle. Some years back Pinter marked the acceptance of a Companion of Literature awarded him by the Royal Society of Literature with an extraordinary one-man enactment of one of his plays. In the vestibule afterwards I saw him beckon one of the society's officials. Some dazzling aperçu about The Caretaker? No, the exact words spoken were: "Where is my car?"

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