21 May 2010

IDS alchemy and Cameron's "new" Cabinet..

I suppose it was my first foray into the field as a gauche young amateur anthropologist. My subject's habitat was totally alien to me. The climate was somewhat hotter and nobody I met sounded like me at all. My primary impression was one of entering a distinct Lebensführing, full of its own meanings and significances, replete with innumerable obviousnesses which hadn't disclosed themselves to my common sense. Like a buoyant bit of flotsam, I clung gratefully onto this ignorance, not much caring to begin the transformation which might transmogrify me into a member of this curious community I was observing. Critical distance was maintained, political distance absolutely confirmed. This odd political village was a conference on Compassionate Conservatism, hosted by Iain Duncan Smith, during his abortive phase as Tory leader. The milling crowd was striking. I vividly recall an oleaginous young man who was clearly trying too hard, cramped by petit-bourgeois anxieties. His lapel was graced with a Union-Jack flag and in case anyone missed the hint, his tie was decorated in the same pattern. If I ever bake a National Front gingerbread man, I will take him as my inspiration. On storky narrow beams, he crept close-sightedly about the room in his ill-fitted suit, awkwardly sipping tea like social-climbing Mr Collins,  a slimy absurdity. Pride & Prejudice indeed.

I also dimly recall others who surprised me. Gentle improbable souls whose Toryism seemed misplaced. These were all too frequently drowned out by confident, breezy louts who strutted around and generally capered like fawning sprites at the bottom of the greasy pole. Attractive bronzed young Tory women and strapping English chaps with massive hair. Being a well-balanced Scotsman, with chips on both shoulders, I can still recall the charmer who suggested to me - in addition to declaring his future intention to become a Tory MP - that "everywhere north of Manchester is basically the same, isn't it"? Just the sort of rhetoric to sneak up the Scottish Tory vote, I reckon. This was Englishness of a sort I'd never actually encountered before - confident, dominant - and as is so often the case about confident and dominant cultures - apparently blessed with relatively limited self-consciousness. Here is where it gets interesting. I've blogged a little before on how we think about the Scottish middle class. Ideas of the Scots bourgeois' mounting Anglicisation are probably best captured by the wobble, when it comes to identifying Edinburgh as a Scottish city. Frequently phrases like most English of Scottish cities, not really Scottish in the same way are bandied about concerning our capital. On this theory, Scottishness becomes most associated  and most generously distributed in working class styles (not an unproblematic concept, but bear with me).  The middle class Scot comes to be imagined as diminishingly Scottish and even increasingly Anglicised, this shift being demonstrated by their accents, a standard English vocabulary, bearing out in questions of taste, education, bearing, costume. Interestingly, survey research seems to show that this theory isn't borne out in how people think of themselves. Self-identification as Scottish being strong across traditional categories of social stratification.

This is something I'm familiar with myself. Having been educated in my youth in a small state school in rural Argyll, around the age of twelve I joined the 4% of children in Scotland educated in private schools. While there, I recall my gentle West Coast accent was subjected to close scrutiny and critical attention, suspicions of Englishness frequently falling upon me. There is much that is absurd and interesting about how the children and young adults orientated themselves towards problematic ideas of class and national identity. Now isn't the moment for a fulsome discussion of these themes.  My point, returning to the  crowd at the compassionate conservatism conference, is that in the main, I think crude versions of the Anglicisation thesis are misguided. Thrust into a centre of self-conscious Englishness, comfortably and authoritatively in its own place, as a bourgeois Scot, speaking Standard Scottish English permitted me to be readily understood by the English folk I encountered. It did not make their conceptual orientations or manners any more understandable to me. They were unrecognisable characters, stepping out of an almost novelistic, Edwardian version of Englishness which I'd encountered in prose and in film. So much for the crowd. I get similar pangs when I meet Americans these days, always feeling dumbly rather astounded to discover that they are real. Rationally, of course, I know that America exists and that fictional simulacra correlate, in a complex way, with underlying apprehensions of a cultural reality. Encountering the real old-school-tie Englishman or an individual poodle-brained American - both still retain a novel frisson.

Watching Westminster's recent rituals and the mannered nonsense of parliamentary form brought this juvenile apprehension back to mind. Questions of who is an expression of institutional authenticity are important questions. Who feels comfortable? Who feels (and is felt) to represent the best traditions of a place?  Who occupies that public sphere, confident that they belong? And crucially, whose alternative discomforted versions are sidelined or silenced? Characters like Sir Peter Tapsell and associated other tedious old  green bench bores and earnest parliamentarians, who rejoice in the dismal liturgies of fawning institutionalism, furnish an excellent example of this. If parliament had a school song, they would undoubtedly baritone it out, belly bust and bellow. These crusty right honourable grandees bob by like coelacanths of Victorian or Edwardian Angliciana. They strike me as a bizarre species, their continued existence improbable, fit to be stuffed and mounted in some fustian library of undead neo-Platonist philosophy and Anglican theology. Can one even begin to imagine a Sir Peter Tapsell in Holyrood? Every encounter I've had with this sort of entitled-church-queen-and-country-ancient-tradition-Toryism has left me totally befuddled. Its spirit is totally lost on me. Humble appeal to her Majesty, dribble, dribble, Royal Commission, ooze ooze, The ancient rights and privileges of this House, fawn fawn, Right Honourable Members - etcetera, etcetera. Meanwhile, its floppy dominance sets my pulse racing with mounting irritation. I dearly want to dismiss it as fatuous, lay traps and hooks for its more bloated leviathans and whip them from the body politick like varicose veins. Watching Westminster go about its business is like peering into a particularly farcical and tedious historical enactment society. Despite Holyrood's capacity for its own nonsense, and the inadequacies of our own tribunes, we are well shot of the Palace of Westminster's fatuous and effeminate fantoosh.

Another thought occurred to me, observing these earnest parliamentary farces. Scrutinising the Tory front bench, I realised that I had seen most of these faces before, mostly at the Conference I mentioned, during the doldrum days of the early 2000s when Iain Duncan Smith with leader of his party. Here are the members of IDS shadow cabinets who are presently new ministers of state or in the Con-Dem Cabinet. Sound familiar? David Lidington, Oliver Letwin, Iain Duncan Smith himself, Theresa May, Caroline Spelman, David Willetts, Lord Strathclyde, Liam Fox, Damian Green, Eric Pickles. That without mentioning the other conspicuous Tory revenants reanimated by Cameron's necromancy - the old carthorse Kenneth Clark and the new First Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary, William Hague. As I recall, a younger, not-yet elected Michael Gove also sat on a panel with demented shrew and justified journalistic sinner, Melanie Phillips. The dear lady informed the discomfited audience, as I remember, that compassionate conservatism was an awful idea and the Tories deserved to be flailing in the mire, as Labour political dominance continued. I can't bring to mind the substance of what Gove had to say, but I remember he was engaging and spoke without a trace of a Scottish accent, all of his vowels flattened out like a squashed penny, in the English style. As you can see, the status quo isn't what it once was. The unleavened bread of IDS Toryism, with a little Cameron yeast, has risen to high office, changed changed utterly. And all using the same ingredients! Forego the temptations of the philosopher's stone. This is impressive alchemy with real results.


  1. Pleasingly demented.

    It veers from Scottish Journey to the Third Policeman, via Rab McNeil's bit.

    And reminds me of Dostoevsky pondering why people laugh madly when racked with toothache.

  2. What can I say Ratzo?

    I do my weather best to give material to the psychoanalysts in my audience!