Look out, the locals are revolting
18 November 2009
Positively the last word on the strange saga of Elizabeth Truss, the Dave’s Darling would-be MP for south-west Norfolk, and her run-in with the Turnip Taliban: it was not about sex or even about using Google.
When members of the local Conservative Association objected to her candidacy, the problem was not that she had once had an affair (Norfolk is well known as an adultery hot-spot) but that local people were tired of being taken for granted. For too long, the important decisions in their lives were being taken by smooth metropolitan types in Central Office, or Westminster, or Brussels.
It was a protest which, ever alert to a misleading but convenient cliché, the national media has presented as a sort of rural isolationism. In fact, it is part of a movement which is altogether more interesting and revealing.
People across the country, whether they live in urban or rural areas, are increasingly aware that the world reflected in the press, on TV and online – the world to which business and politics respond – is not one that they entirely recognise as their own. They distrust decisions based on grand generalisations, which treat regions of the country as pretty much interchangeable. At home and at work, screens reveal the vast, unknowable universe of cyberspace adding to this sense of alienation. In response to the pace and scale of modern life, they turn to what they know – their own community.
When last week, the eminent director Stephen Daldry revealed an apparently startling ambition to run a provincial theatre, he was reflecting this new, vital sense of regionalism. “The relationship you have with a town can be so dynamic,” he said. It is no coincidence that regional theatre, having been in the doldrums, is now undergoing a spectacular renaissance.
Politicians, for all their talk of localism, have not quite woken up to the fact that top-down solutions which make no allowance for particularities of place and culture are more distrusted than ever. Even as they are announced, great consultation exercises are known to be a sham. When it was proposed that the Post Office should close 2,500 branches, a step which would profoundly affect the lives of the vulnerable and of local communities, the Government’s promise to consult was widely seen as a con. Sure enough, it was: after the “consultation”, virtually all the closures took place with a bit of Mandelsonian hand-wringing. The cynicism which greeted this exercise turns out to have been entirely justified. Concerns were “ignored”, according to a report from the Commons’ public accounts committee. The consultations were “little more than window-dressing”. Upheaval and distress were caused for “relatively modest economic benefits”.
There is no great mystery here. The same message can be found in the success of local festivals and regional theatre as is evident in the cynicism about consultation or rage when one of the big parties insist on imposing their own shortlist of potential candidates for a constituency.
Communities are different from one another, whether they are in towns or in the country. The local connection that you have to those who live and work in your neighbourhood or region matters more than ever in a changing, impersonal world. If those making decisions in big, centralised politics and business fail to wake up to this relatively simple fact, they will be the ones who will one day discover that they are out of touch.
If a job needs doing, call for a woman
Yet another survey is about to be published confirming the general uselessness of men. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, having studied the effects of the Great Recession, will conclude that women are more adept than men at dealing with job loss and change. The reason unemployment figures are skewed by gender is all to do with flexibility. The male sex is apparently too hung up on status, too in thrall to what it has done in the past.
The report has a depressing ring of truth to it. Women do seem to be better at thinking radically about what they should be doing in the world. When it was reported, for example, that an 84-year-old actor is to step out of role in order to raise awareness of the great Equitable Life Scandal, it was somehow inevitable that the born-again activist would be a woman.
“It is a reflection of the sorry situation that I may have to do what Joanna Lumley did – shame the Pensions Minister into doing something,” Honor Blackman, has said, launching her campaign.
As time has gone by and the Government has bailed out banks and guaranteed savings, its behaviour in 2000 has seemed inexplicably and cynically heartless. Huge losses were caused to policy-holders, many of whom were vulnerable pensioners, while Gordon Brown stood by, doing nothing. There are suggestions that the Government is dragging its heels over the compensation for a simple, cynical reason: those who lost up to half of their savings are dying off. Another important cause; another former action heroine steps bravely into the breach.
Is writing down your thoughts so shameful?
One of the most intriguing elements of the Belle de Jour story remains unresolved. The blogging prostitute, who has just revealed that she is in fact Dr Brooke Magnanti, a medical researcher who works in the area of children’s health, was asked whether she had felt any sense of shame. “I’ve felt worse about my writing than I ever have about sex for money,” she said.
To those of us who write for a living, this seems a little harsh. Is it really more shameful to put down thoughts and stories for the public to read than it is to lie on a hotel bed with your legs in the air for a fat businessman? It is a daring thought, if not an entirely original one. Flaubert, that literary purist (and enthusiastic brothel-hound) described being published as, “the height of prostitution, of the vilest kind”.
If the reason for Dr Magnanti’s shame was the effect her published words could have on innocent bystanders, her more recent remarks are downright bewildering. When a former boyfriend complained mildly that, by outing herself, she had also outed him – he was described as “the Boy” on the Belle de Jour blog – the response from the sensitive writer was that he should “get over it”.
Spoken like a true professional.