Leading article: Politicians follow a mirage of public opinion

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Luciano Pavarotti sings Liam Gallagher. At least that's what the promoters of the Three Tenors' forthcoming Wembley concert want. The fat man sings the tiny Mancunian, and why not? Musical forms have always begged, borrowed and stolen from one another. Now the pace is increasing. Hyperion, we reported yesterday, is about to bring out a CD of Great British Light Music Classics, trying to introduce younger people to the beauties of middlebrow: Eric Coates for a new generation. Nor is it just music. Cultural mingling is accelerating across the arts. People no longer feel themselves bound to define themselves as one thing or another. We're magpies and resent being tied to a single tree.

Some might deplore this, perhaps mistaking the breakdown of musical and artistic categories for the end of discrimination. A lot of tacky material is sucked up, true. But even cultural pessimists would be hard put to deny that modern taste is not only diverse, it's also unpredictable. Esoteric and "difficult" work has no less chance of finding a following than the familiar and easy. Old ideas about mass audiences being led by the nose just do not apply. In this crossover culture people choose for themselves. Sorting those choices by conventional labels such as class or income no longer tells us much. No one with any sense can any longer talk about knowing what the country wants - there is no "country" as such for much cultural output.

Why then does the idea of a single, solid, predictable public opinion remain so central in political life? Think of the events of the past few days. On Europe, the Prime Minister has played the politics of petulance, gambling with what is left of his reputation and the nation's credit. He has done it for the sake of plaudits in the gallery of public opinion. On sentencing, Michael Howard justified himself, with the Prime Minister and the Tory claque joining in, saying: it was not me, guv, public opinion required us to beard the judges. Public opinion is our reward, our sanction and our legitimacy.

Can the same people - you - who are so admirably mobile, sophisticated, unexpected in cultural choices be so easily bound in gross political categories that are all supposed to be moving in a single direction? Or is this thing that Mr Howard claims is driving him headlong into a public policy assailed on all sides as wrong-headed and worse (far worse) doomed to costly failure a malign artifice? Once, a long time ago, a wise Tory (how oxymoronic has that coupling become in recent times) shook his fist at public opinion, calling it a compound of ignorance, folly, wrong feeling, right feeling and newspaper paragraphs. Are the latter the explanation for the conceit that there is a single and usually reactionary public opinion?

Ministers, and their shadows, believe the public believes this or that because newspapers tell them it is so. Tabloid prophecies are allowed to become self-confirming or suspended in credulity on the slimmest of phone surveys. With faint evidence and no reliable model that explains the translation of tabloid editorialising into voting behaviour, politicians have created a hall of mirrors in which even those mid-market newspapers rapidly losing readers become the arbiters of policy and ministerial destiny. Craven secretaries of state act for the sake of headlines that they take as a proxy for what the public believe. Struggling prime ministers writhe in unceasing effort to please the nameless thing out there that they fear is the public mind. Like automatic writing performed by a charlatan medium, members of the Cabinet do policy at the behest of The People.

But no such thing exists. Public opinion is a construct that, in the light of what is happening to people's tastes and life-choices, seems more and more anachronistic. People have prejudices and beliefs, yes, but they fold in upon one another, they move backwards and forwards. People have views but within them, like Luciano Pavarotti and Liam Gallagher, opposites come together and cohere. That solid anti-European block that John Major evidently believes in - or else why does he palliate the sceptics so - is in reality a mush of half-formed sentiments which do not stop people buying Europe in their consumption decisions nor which will stop their voting for Europe if it comes to the ballot. The point is not to decry opinion polling (for the wrath of the estimable Mr Bob Worcester of MORI is much to be feared). It is not to give up the attempt to make sense of shifting moods and public perceptions by means of panels and sampling. It is, however, to despise public opinion politics.

Why - leaving the substance of the argument aside - Lord Taylor the Lord Chief Justice won hands down was that his was so obviously a personal expression of view. (Lawyers can be sincere!) Michael Howard's worst enemy in his political career is a demeanour that says: lawyerly opportunist. His beliefs appear as a frock-coat worn for the occasion, to be discarded when the function changes.

His problem this week has been his self-presentation as a cipher. I am a mere vessel, he seems to be saying. That stance is, of course, the enemy of parliamentary politics - at best a business of compromise and debate and autonomous choice. It is the friend of plebiscitarian democracy (which, incidentally, is a part of Lady Thatcher's legacy to her party in its contempt for traditionalist Conservatism). Mr Howard and the Prime Minister act as if they believed public opinion to be a coiled spring waiting to punish and reward them, forcing them to jump here, jump there.

The question that must have occurred to them, consummate political animals that they are, is whether they are right in the way they model public opinion. What if public opinion is much more like public taste, sinuous, corner-cutting, unpredictable? Artists play to taste, tease it, lead it, second-guess it. To offer only what has played before is to run a large risk of failure. Modern audiences are more than likely to have moved on and up - or back. Voters, too.

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