DJ Taylor: Why I envy the French and the Greeks...

At least they get a choice from their parties. In other news, TV history is bunk, and advertisers have at last learned to love divorce

Related Topics

If the commentaries of the post-local election period had a unifying theme, it was that the UK's political parties had become Identikit. What was the difference between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories, more than one pundit wondered, given that their policies seemed more a matter of carefully calibrated degree than outright divergence?

This diagnosis was confirmed by the spate of elections across Europe. France, for example, offered the beguiling spectacle of two presidential contenders who not only thoroughly disliked each other but took diametrically opposed views of their fiscal predicament. Again, one might think that the Greek electorate resembled the crew of a rowing eight all paddling zealously towards Niagara, but no one could say that their representatives lacked ideological definition.

The idea that British governments are essentially the same whichever party has a majority is not a new one. The Labour MP Maurice Edelman, writing as long ago as 1964, noted that "The democracy thing is as dead as Gladstone. What we've got in Britain is a kind of Venetian oligarchy and it runs right through the democracy." The Lib Dems increasingly seem to be following the advice in the Belloc poem never to let go of nurse, for fear of finding something worse. But if the Labour Party genuinely aspires to put clear water between itself and the gang of public schoolboys and businessmen's apologists who sit on the Government benches, what should it do?

One smart move would be to elect a leader who doesn't quite so conspicuously resemble, in demeanour, deportment and education, the leaders he is trying to displace. Another might be to actively pursue the goal of social justice, if not by introducing a maximum wage then by establishing a minimum percentage of salary to be rendered up in tax. A third would be to take a much less emollient line with the privatised public utilities, which have spent the past decade feathering their nests at the nation's expense. The water companies, in particular, who are currently making a fortune out of not supplying water, are ripe for re-nationalisation. Finally, there is education, where an incoming education secretary keen on the idea of social mobility could begin by bringing back the Direct Grant – a worthy institution abolished by Harold Wilson in 1976 which involved private establishments educating children from modest backgrounds at the state's expense.

My old college tutor Sir Keith Thomas, former President of the British Academy, now enjoying the sweet otiums of his retirement, was always a master of the bracing corrective. How well I remember gambolling into the porter's lodge in the aftermath of that first Finals paper to discover him bleakly enquiring "You found three questions you could answer, I trust?" In his capacity as chairman of the judges for this year's Wolfson History Prize, the distinguished historian was on hand to warn that the dash for the best-seller list risked undermining the status of academic research.

According to Sir Keith, "there is a tendency for young historians who have just completed their doctoral thesis to immediately hire an agent... jazz it up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would otherwise have been a perfectly good academic work."

By chance, I read these words a few minutes after watching a trailer for BBC4's forthcoming Harlots, Housewives and Heroines in whose first part Lucy Worsley will be examining some of the late 17th century's leading female lights.

What kind of line will Dr Worsley be taking? Why, "these were exciting times for women" the BBC press release assures us, "some of whom displayed remarkably modern attitudes and abilities, acquiring wealth, celebrity and power..." All of which suggests a somewhat skewed angle on past time, whose inhabitants, rather than having lives of their own, have to be advertised as faintly inferior versions of ourselves for fear that the timorous viewer might take fright.

However accurate Sir Keith's strictures about the lure of television history, one might nevertheless ask: how are modern historian supposed to make names for themselves? The Government isn't interested in their subject, and neither is the university system: in each case the criterion is utility. The choice, alas, is between razzmatazz and decent obscurity.

One of the fascinations of the advertising industry is the way it responds – generally at a snail's pace – to contemporary social arrangements. Until as recently as 10 years ago, practically all television ads assumed that the average Briton – certainly the average child – lived in a nuclear family with mum and dad permanently on call, and grandma and grandpa regularly bussed in to help with the babysitting.

Just lately, on the other hand, advertisers have woken up to the realities of separation and re-marriage, and the screens are full of thoughtful-looking blokes trying their damnedest to get on with the children left behind by their beloved's previous partner.

The current Renault ad is a particularly skillful example of this: a four-year warranty, you see, with plenty of time for bonding between an initially puzzled junior and mummy's new friend. Presumably the same adjustments are taking place elsewhere.

I can remember 30 years ago laughing at a Punch cartoon in which an elderly man, lurking at a stationery counter, was informed that there wasn't much demand for "Golden Shack-up" cards. Doubtless WH Smith now has a display-case full of them.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor