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
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.