In defence of the metropolitan elite

'I am for gay rights, asylum-seekers, the euro, metric measurements, dearer petrol, fewer cars, reggae and exotic foods

Some things are beyond caricature. On Monday the Conservative peer Baroness Young introduced an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill; yesterday I spent a spellbinding couple of hours reading the Hansard transcript of the ensuing debate. As the Labour peer Lord Davies of Coity explained, Lady Young's provisions accepted that "normal intercourse is legally permissible at 16 years of age for men and women, and it provides that anal intercourse in respect of both men and women will be legally permissible at 18 years of age".

Some things are beyond caricature. On Monday the Conservative peer Baroness Young introduced an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill; yesterday I spent a spellbinding couple of hours reading the Hansard transcript of the ensuing debate. As the Labour peer Lord Davies of Coity explained, Lady Young's provisions accepted that "normal intercourse is legally permissible at 16 years of age for men and women, and it provides that anal intercourse in respect of both men and women will be legally permissible at 18 years of age".

Unfortunately, he was not interrupted. Had he been, he might have had to explain exactly what made buggery OK at 18 but impermissible by statute at 17. Nevertheless, Lady Young's position, described as a wrecking amendment, led to the fall of the Bill for the equalisation of the gay age of consent, by 205 votes to 144.

Diversion or not, Lady Young herself adhered to the point. "By keeping the age of buggery at 18," she declared, "we protect young 16-year-olds from anal sex, the most dangerous of sexual practices." At that point (and much to his credit, though not, alas, recorded by Hansard) The Independent's own sketch-writer, Simon Carr, was heard from the press gallery to utter the words "Not in my experience, it isn't."

I would pay to attend a debate between Carr and Young on the relative merits and perils of different forms of sexual activity. As I would to purchase The Lady Young Guide to Proper Sex (or, what every young person ought to know), in which she considers the prospects of choking during oral sex or warns how petting inevitably leads on to the hard stuff. Each act could get a danger-rating from the baroness.

The book would be worth reading, for Lady Young is ingenious. She was not anti-gay at all, not her (that must have been a different Lady Young). And what she worried about was not boys, but young women being taken from behind. "Girls," she pointed out, "are half the population, [and] are directly affected by [the Bill] when the minimum age for buggery goes down to 16. One must accept that the Bill is a gay rights measure which will have a profound effect on girls."

So, Lady Young's argument is that if heterosexual buggery at 16 (which few - I imagine - know is illegal) were legalised, then girls the length and breadth of the land would be far more liable to be buggered. As Baroness Seccombe put it: "This is a very important matter that could have disastrous effects on the lives of young girls aged between 16 and 18."

I will not bore you with the revelation that there is no law against heterosexual sodomy in Scotland, nor with the lack of evidence that there is rampant buggery in the glens and that frustrated southern sodomites now head north to get their kicks. But I am left trying to explain to myself how an amendment of such stunning stupidity could gain a majority of the upper house of Parliament.

Perhaps, though, it isn't them. Perhaps it's me. Each time the logic seems to break down in their strange, convoluted world-view, I find myself trumped by their assertion that it is I who fail to grasp the public mood; that it is I who am atypical, that I am somehow "other". That I am part of a thing called the "metropolitan élite". Outside the polenta-and-buggery bars of Islington and Hampstead, there is a world of genuine, rough-hewn, honest people. Among them, Baroness Young is accounted quite normal.

A running theme in William Hague's speeches recently has been the description of the Government as run by a "small, trendy, liberal metropolitan élite". This élite doesn't understand the rural way of life; it doesn't drive, so it fails to comprehend the petroleers; it would sell our currency for a mess of euros; it wants to give our army over to the Frogs; it weighs its kumquats in kilos. It is soft where it ought to be hard and ( pace buggery) hard where it should be soft.

Over in America, the Bush-ites are also intent (despite Bush's own impeccable élite credentials) on pointing up the differences between the small-town, wholesome America that voted for them, and the élite-mobilised, drug-sodden urbanites who backed Gore. One Anglo-American commentator yesterday argued that the Democrats' questioning of the electoral college was itself part of a plot. Under the headline "The liberal elite's plan for a second civil war", she argued that a system in which the winner of the most votes went on to win the election would amount to a coup d'état. "A few densely populated urban conurbations would", she prophesied, "have an unbreakable stranglehold on the presidency." It would mean "the absolute dominion of urban political tastes" - the big empty bits of America in between would be powerless. Or, to put it another way, American democracy can be safeguarded only by ensuring that an Oklahoman's vote is worth slightly more than a New Yorker's.

This definition of 100 million urban Americans as constituting an élite seems eccentric. But populism as a political force has always appealed primarily to a fear of the cities, with the élite bit tacked on. The English radical William Cobbett saw in the great industrial conurbations places devoid of moral or spiritual values, as well as of any kind of beauty. For him, London was simply the Great Wen. In France, the far right has long traded on a hatred of Paris and its intellectuals.

Deeper, more local Ur-values are, in populist ideology, held to be rooted in smaller, remoter communities. There, loamy and rich, the precious particularities of the people are thought to be held safely. The values of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, patria, familia, common sense, continuity. Those are eternally threatened by the cultural lunacy of the cities, with their extreme, discomfiting relativism. The young folk disappear to the Smoke to become rent-boys or (if girls) to be sodomised at 16; the art galleries are full of Tracey Emin's beds; drugs are available on every street-corner. And all this is accompanied by metropolitan "sneering" at the yeoman and his blunt honesty.

Not only is the city the catalyst for mindless change, but it is also a place that - since belonging is unimportant - is inimical to nation and (if you are so disposed) to race. The radical Cobbett, who bemoaned the effect of capitalism on the countryside, blamed both the landowners (now absent in London) and that other source of evil, the money-lending, finance-minded Jews.

After all, who better represented the anti-national, metropolitan (if not to say cosmopolitan) élite than those who had no nation? And who, to boot, were often to be found in some strength in senior common rooms or bank board-rooms, running Hollywood or Granada? No, neither a buggerer nor a lender be.

I am, of course, a member of the metropolitan, liberal élite. I am for gay rights, asylum-seekers, the euro, metric measurements, devolution, feminism, dearer petrol, fewer cars, intervening in Sierra Leone, change, reggae and experimenting with exotic foods. But, strangely, I seek to impose few of my own lifestyle choices on others. I may want abortion to be available to my family, should they require it, but I don't demand that everyone be forced to have an abortion. Just as I might think it was right to allow adults to decide how to manipulate the sexual organs of themselves and their partners, so I am happy for Lady Young to find her pleasure as she sees fit. It's her buggering everyone else around I object to.

david.aaronovitch.btinternet.com

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