Sarah Sands: The new cool is a ram-rod back and a canal holiday

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The Independent Online

The striking radicalism of David Cameron's coalition government should not blind us to the Prime Minister's temperamental traditionalism. This is someone who spent his school days in a black morning coat, pin- striped trousers and white tie, although Eton had by then dispensed with the top hat and cane as part of the standard uniform.

Tony Blair, on the other hand, had a Year Zero policy towards British culture, as well as historically complicated hostile countries. The Blair Millennium party conference speech was a bonfire of the heritage. "Now the new progressive force in British politics can... sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free." The trouble with regime change is what you put in its place. The cultural symbol of new Britain was the dreary and disorganised Dome.

Yet when I asked a rather self-pitying Cherie Blair if there was an upside to being in Downing Street, she brightened and said that she loved being able to watch Trooping the Colour. So when David Cameron said that Labour had underplayed tourism because "they just didn't get our heritage" he was being realistic rather than reactionary.

For all Blair's celebration of Cool Britannia, tourists willingly queue to see the Changing of the Guard or the Crown Jewels. Gordon Brown gathered world leaders at the Excel Conference Centre in Docklands. But Michelle Obama opted for Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.

State intervention in culture is almost always suspect or disastrous. London is more innovative and creative than ever before, but it's a free spirit driving it rather than an ideological one. David Cameron has learnt from Labour not to try to associate himself with national sporting events, and artistic ones too must remain outside his control. That is not to say that he cannot express his taste. Indeed, he cannot help it. We know that his musical preferences are bland and middle/low brow.

On art, he seems to defer to his contemporary-minded wife. The Serpentine Gallery, which he visited on Thursday, is not a place to study landscape painting. He was not especially interested in the armed forces in opposition but his newly acquired statesmanship means that, in their presence, he now looks like a colonel-in-chief. During his visit to Sandhurst last week, his back was noticeably stiffer and his chin higher. Maybe he was remembering his grandfather, a lieutenant colonel with the 61st Reconnaissance Regiment during the Second World War.

In many ways, Cameron is more in touch with public opinion than New Labour, just as Prince Charles is sometimes closer to the man on the street than, for instance, Richard Rogers. There was a hauteur about New Labour and a sometimes misplaced prejudice about Tory culture. When Blair sneered that this was a "party of fox hunting" he did not foresee how foxes would become an urban terror.

Cameron reveals his extreme poshness by trying to conceal it. Referring to himself as "middle class" last week prompted derision. Funnier I think, is his appeal to enjoy domestic holidays. His recommendations include: "North Cornwall, Norfolk, the Inner Hebrides, the Highlands, the canals of Staffordshire." This is a man who prefers to swim in freezing water and who would be shooting grouse now if it were not politically forbidden to him. Heritage to Cameron cannot help seeming, as Blair put it "the old air of superiority based on past glory".

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'