February 11, 2011


Uncool Britannia: how British culture turned Tory: British culture is going through a blue period, with actors, musicians and artists all happily admitting that they're privately educated Conservative toffs. What happened? (John Harris, 2/03/11, The Guardian)

[T]here is a whiff of stardust around the Tories that would once have been unthinkable. It's easily forgotten now, but there were very serious rumours about Mark Ronson DJing at the 2009 Tory conference, and giving Cameron a public endorsement. Now, in a twist no one would have seen coming, Courtney Love recently attended a "Port and Policy" debate organised by Oxford University's Conservative Association, and was given the post of "non-executive officer for rock'n'roll". Photos of the accompanying revellers show Love – who is dating Kirstie Allsopp's art dealer brother, Henry – dutifully posing in front of a union flag with a mostly-male array of student Tories, who look about as non-rock'n'roll as you might imagine. What Kurt Cobain would have made of it all is anyone's guess.

There is, then, something afoot: a waning of the old stigma that got in the way of "creatives" backing the Tories, and resulted in any who did facing loud ridicule. Consider the case of the synth-pop icon Gary Numan – these days a name it's perfectly OK to drop, with a dependable cult following. Back in the 1980s, his public statements of support for the Thatcher government made him a music press pariah, and played some role in his fall (as late as 2003, however, he was unrepentant: "Thatcher had a clear idea about everything and seemed to be massively pro-British against the rest of the world," he said). In 2010, by contrast, the other Gary's campaigning for the Tories caused no career damage whatsoever: it simply stood as an above-average photo opportunity, crashlanded on the evening news, and was promptly forgotten.

So what has changed? Cameron's diligent attempts to rebrand his party by affecting the role of the modern, bike-riding urban dad and paying endless tributes to his favourite rock bands have undoubtedly helped. The same applies to the feting of his supposedly switched-on wife.

Much more important, though, is the wider context. Whether austerity will bring a renewed ideological charge to the relationship between politics and culture is an interesting point: certainly, the famous names who have protested about arts cuts and library closures suggest that very familiar battle-lines are already reappearing. That said, we still largely live in the post-Blair age, in which the right-left divide is not nearly as entrenched as it once was, and people's political preferences count for much less. Whisper it, then – but after decades of ignominy, it might just be OK to be a pop-culture Conservative.

In any case, the arts are aligning themselves with the Tories in ways much more subtle and insidious than simple endorsements. Just as New Labour managed to slot itself into the wider moment known as Cool Britannia, so there are lines that can be drawn from musicians, actors, film-makers and novelists to people at the top of government. Here, the arriviste likes of Barlow are less important than a new elite who speak with the same accents as people at the top, and attest to a simple fact: the privately educated seem to be newly dominant, and a sharp change of tone and taste stretches from politics, to the arts, and beyond.

The demotic affectations – glottal stops, photo-ops in greasy spoon cafes, an affected love of football – that were obligatory 15 years ago have completely disappeared. Last year, there was a flurry of news coverage when the Word magazine reported that during one week in October, 60% of the acts in the UK charts came from privately educated backgrounds, although it subsequently printed a letter pointing out that its figure were erroneously exaggerated [see footnote]. When this story was revived last week in an item on the Today programme it brought a furious emailed response from one Jane Blount, better known as the mother of that renowned Harrow alumnus James Blunt.

Barely a day goes past, it seems, when you cannot pick up a newspaper and find the latest sensation in music, or film, or literature, expounding on an early life of dormitories, tuck shops and "prep". Take, for example, the actor Dominic West – AKA Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and just cast in an ITV drama as the serial killer Fred West. He went to Eton, his wife is a former countess, he has a daughter from a relationship with a member of the Astor dynasty, and he is – but of course – a friend of the Camerons. He is also said to have once had a soft spot for the prime minister's wife. When asked, he has occasionally seemed uneasy about his background, though he has tended to end up sounding much the same rather questionable notes as the Old Etonians in government. "It probably helps that we now live in a meritocracy," he mused two years ago, "so we don't need to worry where people came from."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2011 6:10 AM
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