Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

A colleague of mine used to describe a certain type of Tory as HCB-positive. HCB stood for 'Home-counties banter', which included such chirpy banalities as 'No peace for the wicked' and 'The Devil makes work for idle hands to do'. New Labour has filled the verbal vacuum left by the Tories' departure with its own jargon, less homecounties than ham-fisted, Clintonesque Californian. Last week the government made frequent references to 'the spirit of the new age', with the intention of showing that Labour was 'in keeping' with it. I never quite understand what is meant by 'the spirit of the new age'. To which type of spirit does it refer? Gordon's? Smirnoff? Johnny Walker? (Let us hope, for Labour's sake, that it is not Haig.) Either that or it sounds suspiciously like the Holy Spirit, whom surely not even Mr Mandelson can be on speaking terms with.

Informality, it appears, is particularly in keeping with the spirit of the new age. Cabinet ministers were told to call the Prime Minister 'Tony'; Gordon Brown, the new Chancellor, declined to put on white tie or black tie for his Mansion House speech; Mr Blair was photographed in jeans - constituting less of a state of the nation address, than a state of the nation on dress. These directives are somehow touching; they indicate that Mr Blair's heart is in the right place even if his tailor isn't. The trouble with such self-conscious stabs at modernity, however, is that they invariably appear hopelessly old-fashioned, especially when practised by men who, in many cases, are only a decade or so short of their pensions. Mr Blair's insistence on Christian names and Mr Brown's distaste for `monkey suits' are less new than rather fustian relics from Sixties Oxbridge Labour clubs. Actually from its inception Labour has had a problem with its social policy - that is, with regard to its own members. Should they dress to the right or the left? Labour is a party with in-built schizophrenia, a working-class movement which has often found itself led by comparative toffs. This has caused some historic splits, not only in Labour's politics but in its trousers. Fat trade unionists have had to squeeze, uncomfortably, into smart suits. Public schoolboys have courted popularity in more populist garments, a pretentious way of displaying a socialist principle. The late Tony Crosland was one of the few to bridge this divide successfully. His solution was to hold all his dinner parties in the kitchen, but at the same time insist that the guests wore black tie, and sometimes white. (My father, then a Labour MP, once protested that he didn't own a white tie. 'In that case,' replied Crosland, 'you had better stay at home.'). In recent years, far from reintroducing social dignity into politics, the Tories have been even more lax than Labour. When Mr Major became prime minister we were informed that the government would adopt a more casual, matier approach. Ministers would roll up their sleeves and slap each other on the back. Unfortunately, as Mr Major was to discover, once you give someone your back to slap they will sooner or later move on to your face. If Mr Blair wants to be really novel he should instruct his colleagues not only to call him 'Prime Minister' but 'Sir', wear Windsor knots in their ties and put on starched shirts with studs after dark. The latter, incidentally, would be a good way of avoiding sex scandals as starched shirts are notoriously difficult to get out of. …

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