DJ Taylor: Whoever you vote for, the Government always gets in

We live in a counterfeit democracy, unlike China, and feasting with despots is always fraught with danger. Plus, there's nothing new about the craze for buying tat
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The Independent Online

On Friday week the distinguished novelist Ferdinand Mount will deliver this year's George Orwell Memorial Lecture. There is a particular piquancy about both lecturer and subject.

Mr Mount is not only a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit; he is also the Prime Minister's cousin. As for his theme – "Orwell and the Oligarchs" – well, it just happens to coincide with the unveiling of David Cam-eron's plan to redefine the citizen's relationship with the state.

The fact that we live not in a parliamentary democracy but in a cunningly contrived counterfeit of one, where whoever wins an election the same kind of people are still working the levers of power, is not always appreciated by party activists. Mr Cameron, on the other hand, certainly seems to appreciate it. Above all, he seems to recognise the fact that to most UK citizens the link between a vote and what gets done as a result of it is so convoluted as to barely exist. Hence his assurance that reform will be driven not by short-term political calculations, "but by the consistent, long-term pressure of what people want and choose in their public services".

This sounds a terrific idea until you realise that it is based on an assumption that people know what they want from government, and that government, in its turn, is able to quantify these desires and set about appeasing them. So, how does the average British citizen regard the state? The first problem lies in the existence of that shadowy entity known to social historians as "them". In their myriad guises, "they" can be positively protean, taking in everything from the tax authorities to park-keepers. To my father "they" were a malign and anti-meritocratic force at work to obstruct his and his family's path through life. Sometimes "they" could be confounded – "That's shown the bastards" he once remarked when notified of a favourable examination result – but more often than not "they" would move mountains to ensure that everyone who laboured under their yoke would suffer as much inconvenience as possible.

But if you get rid of "them", what do you put in their place? Here you face another problem; the almost complete lack of civic awareness and communal spirit shown by a good 80 per cent of the population. Orwell himself once proposed that most of the patriotic flag-waving that takes place in this country was carried out by small minorities. The same is true of collective action. It is not even that we are all sturdy individualists, for whom collaboration is a kind of selling out, merely that, rather than having any deeply held opinions about how our relationship to the state might be better managed, we simply want to be left alone while, paradoxically, enjoying all the benefits that the state has to offer. I think Mr Cameron has his work cut out here.


A political journalist who observed that Tony Blair was a polished communicator who never allowed the lack of corroborative evidence to get in the way of his policy decisions would probably be told by his editor that this judgement, though fundamentally sound, had come a little late in the season. For some reason, though, the BBC Trust seems to be able to get away with these statements of the obvious, arrived at long years after everyone else has discovered them for themselves. Only this week, for example, it could be found alleging that BBC1 and BBC2 were "too similar", while exhorting BBC4 to do more to "raise its profile".

In particular, the trust advised Janice Hadlow, BBC2's resourceful controller, that she should not be afraid to lose audience numbers as she tried to make her fiefdom more distinctive. "BBC2 should provide something which audiences recognise as being manifestly different from BBC1, even at the risk that BBC2's reach may fall." All this, alas, had approximately as much novelty as the revelation that the late Michael Jackson had a rather curious personal life. People outside the BBC, you see, have been complaining about BBC2's transformation into a wasteland of gardening, cookery and property porn ever since the more high-brow BBC4 came into existence back in 2002.

As for BBC4, how on earth is it supposed to achieve the "greater impact" on which the trust is so keen with only a fraction of the other channels' funding? "Do you expect to get paid for this sort of thing?" a BBC4 producer wondered the other week, having engaged my services for six hours, to which, oddly enough, the answer was "yes". Far be it from me to accuse the trust of being out of touch, but with this level of attack it wouldn't be at all surprising to discover, somewhere in its current report, a heart-felt encomium to Valerie Singleton's latest showing on Blue Peter.


Going back to David Cameron, a large number of liberal consciences found themselves usefully paraded in the small matter of the Prime Minister's visit to China, and the thought that he might refer (directly or indirectly) to that country's serial abuse of human rights. There was talk, inevitably, of the "hypocrisy" which would be displayed if any post-Imperial Briton should try to criticise foxy old Wen Jiabao for locking up protesting students (and how would Mr Wen have dealt with Wednesday's stand-off in Whitehall? Answers on a postcard to the Chinese embassy) and a certain amount of hardboiled realpolitik about not jeopardising trade negotiations.

And yet, compared to one or two of his predecessors, Mr Cameron seems to have been a model of quiet forcefulness, admitting that the West was by no means perfect, but raising human rights issues and actually getting the old despot of Beijing to say that he "welcomed dialogue". All this raises the interesting question of how you go about feasting with tyrants – that is, enjoying the hospitality of the unelected thug (or extending it to him) in a manner consistent with civility.

Here, one couldn't help remembering the famous dinner given by Hugh Gaitskell and the Labour shadow cabinet when Khrushchev visited the UK in 1960. After the best of three falls with the Soviet ambassador, Gaitskell was eventually allowed to hand over a list of imprisoned dissidents. Unhappily, the illusion of amity was shattered by George Brown, who was at one point heard to mutter the words "May God forgive you". He went on to remark that, had it not been for the Russo-German pact of 1939, "a lot of my comrades wouldn't now be dead", whereupon pandemonium broke out. Set against this smouldering template, Mr Cameron seems to have comported himself rather well.


The book I most enjoyed reading last week was John Lucas's memoir Next Year Will Be Better, an entertaining account of growing up in the 1950s which charts, with an almost forensic precision, the process by which post-war austerity gave way to the comparative affluence of the Macmillan era. One of Lucas's chief interests, it turns out, is the psychology of that first wave of consumer materialism, the reason why, when presented with shopfuls of what was self- evidently tat, consumers still rushed out to buy it. As he explains: "People bought fripperies and gewgaws simply because they had gone for so long without having money to spend or anything to spend it on .... The goods might be inferior, but at least they were available." The frippery recalled by Mr Lucas included "door-bell chimes and wrought-iron flower-pot holders ... trios of plaster ducks to be displayed winging their way from right to left along the dining room wall". All of which seems to demonstrate both that the 21st century started here, and that one of the most pointless things a social theorist can do is blame the modern age for its materialism.

According to a survey of attitudes to relationships, a quarter of us are still in touch with our first best friend from childhood. One in four maintains contact with his or her closest friend from primary school, while the average Briton "only" counts five of their everyday acquaintances as "close friends". To set one's own friendship statistics alongside this cavalcade of good-fellowship was, to say the least, a touch alarming. For one thing, I can't remember if I had a best friend at primary school. As for those five daily soul-mates, alas, I lurk solitary behind a desk all day with no thought of interaction until the children come home. One of the oddest things about modern life, it might be argued, is that hankering for Friends-style mass conviviality, in which your leisure time is spent more or less in public and each emotional crisis is instantly turned into seminar fodder for the great mates who are permanently at your elbow. A real-life version of the evenings enjoyed by Rachel, Phoebe and co would be intolerable after about 10 minutes.