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Modern laments about the decline of deference notwithstanding, the English have always regarded their leaders as idiots or crooks, and nowhere more so than in their literature. Today's politicians do not feel the need to pretend that they read books. But in the 20th century, they had to put on a show of sophistication. When interviewers asked them to name their favourite novelist, they invariably picked Trollope — the only great writer to respect their trade.

 
Margaret Thatcher: The leftist intelligentsia could not abide — or understand — her ; Salman Rushdie: "The filth of imperialism"

Despite the long tradition of insubordination, however, this scene from Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! could only have been written at a particular time about a group of politicians the literary intelligentsia hated more than any other before or since. Thomas Winshaw, a creepy banker whose aim in life is to keep wealth and power in the hands of men like himself, is wondering how his equally repellent brother, Henry, a venal, backstabbing political fixer, got away with cutting the health-care budget.

"Well it's quite simple, really." Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club's private rooms. "The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There's no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public has had the chance to work out what's hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than...a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at the same time."

Thomas nodded and bit eagerly into his muffin.

"Unemployment, for instance," Henry continued. "When was the last time you saw a newspaper headline about unemployment? Nobody gives a hoot anymore."

No one of my age and political leanings needs to be told that we are in the Eighties. Like the first bars of a Clash song on the radio, a stroke of Coe's pen takes you back to the grim, furious and still misunderstood left-wing reaction to Margaret Thatcher. What a Carve Up! is a satire, one of the greatest of our times, but do not be led into believing that we took it as a joke. For us, the grotesque Winshaw family who carve up Britain were not fantasies but an accurate approximation of how we saw the Tories of the day. Alongside Thomas and Henry, Coe had Mark Winshaw, an arms dealer who sells weapons to Saddam Hussein — I should explain to younger readers that the Left was against Ba'athist fascism in the 1980s — Roddy Winshaw, a philistine art dealer, and their sister Hilary, a right-wing journalist who takes over and degrades a liberal television station, in much the same way that David Cameron and his colleagues at Carlton took over and degraded the Thames TV franchise. When they thought no one was listening, this was exactly how we imagined Conservatives talked as they scoffed their muffins in their Pall Mall clubs.

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Anonymous
December 22nd, 2009
6:12 PM
The reason the Left will fail at the election is mentioned in this article but not given enough weight. It is the contempt with which the Left holds the general electorate. They see them as venal, corrupt, grabbing, selfish and utterly not to be trusted. They need an enlightened elite to instruct and yes, force, them to see the error of their ways. This elitism and refusal to persuade is the rotten heart of the Left. If the Left ever got its act together and realised there was no short-cut to democracy, it might be unstoppable. Then again, as I have learned and it led to my disillusionment with the Left, they may also find that the reason the Left finds itself eternally drawn to coercion is because the general population think it is better equipped to make decisions about their lives than the Left is. Sadly Partha, above, exemplifies this addiction to thinking the population stupid.

Partha
December 22nd, 2009
2:12 PM
The embourgeoisment of our society has (while having MANY merits) produced a hubristic class of consumers who deludedly conflate themselves with their betters rather than lessers. One hundred years ago, a worker could have looked at a plutocrat, his cleanliness, his attire (the fact his clothes were not torn, that he wore shoes etc), his accent and concluded that he was almost of a different breed. But today's super rich paint themselves as, "y'know, regular guys", they drop their Ts and Hs, most of us in Britain can afford to not have to walk in rags without shoes. As a result, many ordinary folk find it easier to form the impression that they themselves will probably join the ranks of the fabulous one day. This is compounded by the fact that the media they watch/listen to is essentially one big lottery advert. Which makes for an ignorant populace. The truth is that the middle-class are just as invested in the nation's well-being as the working class. They need to be told "YOU'RE ALL MEMBERS OF THE THIRD ESTATE! SO WIPE THAT SUPERCILIOUS SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE!(and get rid of that credit card. It's turning you into a tosspot with an inflated sense of entitlement) Says I.

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