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Leading Article: Will it always have been with us?

ALL THE institutions that really matter to the English middle classes appear to have been in place, unchanged, for centuries. One thinks of Parliament, the monarchy, and The Archers. Of course, appearances are deceptive. Parliament loses sovereignty, the Royal Family loses spouses. Only the Home Service endures from age to age. The new commercial station, Classic FM, which was launched yesterday, must sound a week from now as if it had always been there, if it is to succeed.

Much indignation has been spent on the pronouncements of Michael Bukht, the programme controller of the new station. He has admitted that he will be producing very high- class aural wallpaper, in which the music will be broken into digestible 'highlights' rather than presented as an opportunity for rapt contemplation. But Britain leads the world in the production of high-class aural wallpaper, even if foreigners are unimpressed by the claim.

From Tromso to Tuscany, whoever listens to the The News Quiz, Just a Minute, or the Today show is instantly returned home to the heart of England, somewhere near Ambridge. The essence of this achievement is that Radio 4 has already done for conversation what Mr Bukht proposes to do for music on Classic FM. Granted, the regular performers on the the Radio 4 circuit are still human. You cannot see the CDs revolving inside them. But what they say has clearly been digitally remastered, broken into short highlights, and played over again and again. The extension of this technique to classical music is not the revolutionary step that it seems.

It will keep the roads safe, too. The sort of culture the English really love requires no more concentration than is compatible with driving a car while you absorb it. It is not pap, by any means. It is just upper middlebrow. However clever or artistic it may be, it will always return to the same certainties. What these certainties may be is far too profound a question for civilised discussion. They may swing through 180 degrees without anyone noticing. All that matters to the English social fabric is that there should be certainties which the middle classes know without thought.

Even the middle classes change and expand. The listeners of the Forties would be horrified to hear the wireless today. The old haut bourgeois urge to improve others has been banished to Radio 3, which no longer competes with any other channel. On Classic FM, they understand that nothing is to be taken too seriously, and even philistinism must be taken in moderation.

The greatest contribution that Radio 4 has made to the understanding of the human condition is Desert Island Discs, a programme in which there is just enough music to break up any conversation that might turn deep, but not nearly enough to communicate, since the musical fragments are chopped short, like canned spaghetti. The result is compulsive for a very large audience. If Classic FM can come up with a vulgarisation half as good, it will have become an institution, in place since the Norman Conquest.