Such a Snobbish View of Our Popular Culture

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IN THE spring of 1948, the Communist Party of Great Britain held its first National Cultural Congress in London. There, 400 party members, writers, artists, composers and journalists came together to discuss, among other things, the threat to British culture represented by the invasion from across the Atlantic. The secretary of the Party's cultural committee, a young man not yet 30, bemoaned the impact of Hollywood and Superman comics on the land of Dickens and Shakespeare. "The battle of ideas," he proclaimed, "is no less a national struggle to prevent Britain's subjection by America."

Spool on half a century and more to this week's interview in Tatler with the author VS (Vidia) Naipaul. Like Britain's own Zhdanov (Stalin's cultural commissar), Naipaul too is horrified by the way that British culture has been debased. His target, however, is not America (at least, not directly) but Tony Blair. Naipaul decries the PM as a "cultural vandal", whose government, by talking about things being for the many and not for the privileged few, "has destroyed the idea of civilisation in this country". Or, as Naipaul allows, New Labour is the culmination of a process which has led to the triumph of something he calls "plebeian culture". "It is terrible, this very plebeian culture," he tells his interviewer, "[it is] an aggressively plebeian culture that celebrates itself for being plebeian."

A man as careful as Naipaul had every way of knowing that his words would eventually be sandwiched between an article on the 100 people that one would most want at a society party (Archduke Philip of Austria is a new entry at 94, Ken Livingstone at 63), and a long cover feature on Thandie Newton, who is "Tom Cruise's leading lady in Mission Impossible 2". Not, one suspects, a film for which Sir Vidia will be queuing tonight down at the Warminster Trocadero. But if you need to say something badly enough, then you must seize every opportunity to be photographed on the arm of your photogenic wife in the gardens of your country residence.

If Naipaul's claim that "we now have a full socialist revolution" raises some doubts about his grasp of contemporary politics, his accusation that "they (New Labour) think they are fighting for the common man, whereas they are demeaning the whole country", though short on specifics, makes the trajectory of his own argument very clear. Popular culture is, for Sir Vidia, an oxymoron.

He is not the only knight out, so to speak. The antiquarian and hero- curator Sir Roy Strong is represented approvingly by Stephen Bayley, in his book Labour Camp, as believing that Blair et al are "determined to see an end of the continuous aristocratic culture which has defined British life". Bayley says of this, on his own account, that "Art under New Labour is defined as a lowering populism". One example of this populism, says Bayley, is the embracing by Labour ministers of the Turner prize for modern art, which Bayley sees as a "pseudo-event". Just as culturally appalling, in his view, was the Government's involvement in the post-Diana grief-fest, which Bayley describes as having been cultish and "sinister".

Beneath the Frazier-like cattiness, Bayley makes some sensible points about the dangers for politicians and the arts of having too close an association. But his contempt for the Government's cultural credentials leads him into personal assessments that are interestingly wrong. "One imagines," he writes, "that the River Cafe Cookbook is more prominent in Tony Blair's library than Walter Bagehot or John Ruskin." If one imagines that, one is wrong. It was the poet Longfellow that Blair turned to in the watches of the night, not a verse by a fashionable yogi.

But then, one imagines what one likes about the PM. …