DJ Taylor: Welcome to the Counterintuitive Party

The coalition, in its search for an economic cure, reaches for roadbuilding, questionable fuel, and tax breaks for the rich

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The smart consensus on the Chancellor's Autumn Statement seemed to be that the economic crisis was pretty much beyond George Osborne's ability to solve. We were in the grip of raging supra-national forces, the argument ran, and only time – and events uncoiling across the dim horizon – could determine if we would be let down gently or briskly deposited in a bankrupt heap. The Shadow Chancellor, though naturally critical of his vis-à-vis, did not seem to be offering anything markedly different, and of radical economic visions untethered to the wider international landscape there seemed remarkably little sign.

The suspicion that nobody really knew what needed to be done plunged me headfirst into the most subversive of political daydreams. If you were a right-wing ideologue of extreme free-market persuasions, let us say, suddenly wafted into Downing Street on the thermals of fate, what would you do? The first thing to go, clearly, would be any attachment to the idea of Europe, or even the Anglo-American alliance, on the grounds that each, economically, is a busted flush and the only route to security lies in the export markets of the East.

Another foreign policy shift would be an implacable hostility to the liberation movements of the Middle East, on the grounds that the freer the developing world becomes, the bigger the slice it will want of the West's resources. At home, you would mount a stealthy, or not so stealthy, ideological war on the public sector – inefficient, over-staffed and a drain on the Exchequer – and sell almost anything off to anyone prepared to pay for it. Hot in pursuit of "growth", you would embark on a gargantuan round of road-building, despoil the environment as much as possible (all that gas just waiting to be sieved out of the Lancashire shale!) and strew tax breaks on the rich like so much confetti.

Back in the world of autumn statements and drastically revised growth forecasts, it can't be said that quite all of the above is official Government policy. At the same time, there are any number of hawks on the Tory back benches for whom a sanitised version of this would be just the ticket. So any politician considering the question of "what needs to be done" who began with this template and then did exactly the opposite would be making a very good start.

The distinguished Italian novelist Umberto Eco could be found in The Guardian the other day regretting the tendency of cultural impresarios to patronise their audiences. "It is only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things," he declared. "People are tired of simple things."

A glance at one or two of the mass-cultural enticements on television and in consumer magazines might suggest that, on the contrary, people are falling over themselves to embrace the gratifyingly clear cut. And yet, in philosophical terms, the question which lurks beneath Eco's complaint – are debased cultural standards wished upon us, or do we wish them upon ourselves? – has never been very easy to answer.

On the one hand, there lingers the thought that if you feed people on a diet of suet, then suet is what they want to eat. Samuel Butler, observing a calf in a field eating dung, believed that it was because no one had told it that dung was unwholesome. On the other hand, nothing is more off-putting than the atmosphere of pretentious solemnity in which "culture" is often introduced to the great mass of punters who exist on its tantalising border.

Meanwhile, the difficulty of alerting potential viewers to the fact that there is a world beyond Sir Bruce Forsyth and Jeremy Clarkson is made worse by a relentless marginalising process that relegates the best television to BBC4 and the newly revivified South Bank Show to Sky Arts. Perhaps highbrows need to be more militant in asserting their tastes. There were signs of this in the recent agitation against library closures. But what we need is a deputation from the Royal Society of Literature marching on Whitehall to smash a few of the Culture Secretary's departmental windows.

As the Government's plans to speed up the processes of development continue to unite the nation's rural communities against them, I was interested to read an article by George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, on why "infrastructure" is "the key to unlocking potential". Even Tory MPs have to restrain their instinctive urge to suck up to house-builders these days, as their supporters grow more wary of the implications for the greensward: Cheryl Gillan is thought to be ready to resign from the Cabinet if the new high-speed rail link to Birmingham goes anywhere near her Chilterns constituency, and good luck to her.

And so Mr Freeman, the founder of a project called The Norfolk Way, was keen to stress the advantages of a "sustainable model of rural development based on a vibrant rural economy". What does this mean in practice? Why, something called an "East Anglian Infrastructure Building Society" to "raise and invest the billions we need for high-quality housing on a network of fast rail, road and broadband links". Although many people live in Norfolk is to avoid all this, Mr Freeman ended his call to arms by urging us all to "insist on the freedom to develop in a way that combines opportunity with a high quality environment to live in, raise a family and build great businesses". In other words: step this way messrs Bovis, Barrett and Persimmon Homes – the concrete mixers await.

At the exact moment when Alastair Campbell appeared before the Leveson inquiry to denounce the "putrid" state of the tabloid press, I was enjoying my monthly skim through piles of celebrity magazines in the local hairdressing salon. Musing on the latest tribulations experienced by Kerry Katona – "lonely Kerry", who is now apparently reduced to trawling the internet for friends and taking more than the occasional glass of wine – I decided that one fail-safe way of raising press standards would to insist that all sources are named. Surely it would be more satisfactory to all parties if the dirt dished on Ms Katona's latest nightclub escapade or kebab debauch were not routinely attributed to "a pal" or "a source"? Ms K would know which of her friends were selling her down the river, and the reader would know the stories weren't simply being made up. If this sounds irredeemably snooty, I should say that "quality" journalism is quite as guilty of these evasions. I once wrote a profile of David Starkey in which nearly all the anonymous sources, including the indignant writer "insulted by him on The Moral Maze" were me.

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