Defending New Labour in the Observer a few weeks ago, David Aaronovitch identified a sinister world of privilege, prejudice and plotting, where short-sighted, soi-disant left-wing opponents of the government gather ‘in shuttered dining-rooms in Holland Park, Highbury and Kennington’ to exchange vitriol, some of which leaks out into the public realm through such conduits as ‘the pages of the London Review of Books’. The piece might cause you to consider whether it’s self-indulgent and irresponsible to draw attention to the shortcomings of a government, or merely the duty of a free press. It might encourage you to think for a moment about whether or not it would be a good thing if the government weren’t ever criticised from the left, but attacked only by the Daily Mail. Or it might make you wonder where exactly all these shuttered dining-rooms are, and why it is that you’ve never been invited to one of the fabled conspiracies forever taking place in them. Then again, you might find yourself curious as to whether David Aaronovitch doesn’t have any friends who invite him round for dinner occasionally, and if he does, whether he refrains from discussing politics with them.
What’s especially clever about Aaronovitch turning the ‘dinner party’ slur against New Labour’s critics is that it used to be an insult thrown at New Labour itself, years ago, before Blair abandoned the shuttered dining-rooms of North London for grill-outs in the wide open spaces of Texas, and criticism began to focus on things more deserving of opprobium than eating too much asparagus or thinking mushy peas were guacamole – waging an illegal war, for example. Whoever the target is, however, the implications of the charge are the same: behind their shutters, in their comfortable homes, tucking into their magrets de canard, the dinner-party crowd don’t know what’s going on in the real world. The arguments don’t need to be engaged with but can be dismissed out of hand because of who’s making them. What’s more, if you disparage people for attending dinner parties – it’s never clear whether hosts or guests are more culpable – you’re also accusing them of being ineffectual. Twenty-odd years ago, the SDP was known in some quarters as the Social Dinner Party.
The cliché lurking behind the notion of the dinner-party set, a cliché that Aaronovitch meticulously avoided, manifests itself in a piece of advice that the narrator of Love in a Cold Climate is given by her Uncle Davey: ‘So long as you chatter, Fanny, it’s of no consequence what you say, better recite out of the ABC than sit like a deaf mute. Think of your poor hostess, it simply isn’t fair on her.’ The ‘shuttered dining-rooms’ of gentrified Zone 2 are the refectories of the chattering classes. And dinner, after all, is nothing if not an index of class.
Old Labour ate – eats – its dinner in the middle of the day: an Old Labour dinner party is something of a semantic impossibility. When stories started to circulate about Tony Blair and chums having dinner parties in Islington, it was as a sure sign that the Labour Party was abandoning its roots, a bit like Mrs Gibson in Wives and Daughters, ‘whose object was to squeeze herself into “country society”’:
the late dinners which Mrs Gibson had introduced into her own house were a great inconvenience in the calculations of the small tea-drinkings at Hollingford. How ask people to tea at six who dined at that hour? How, when they refused cake and sandwiches at half-past eight, induce other people who were really hungry to commit a vulgarity before those calm and scornful eyes?
Those calm and scornful eyes have now turned on newly vulgarised New Labour.
Searching the internet for hints as to where contemporary dinner parties might be taking place, I found that, despite the supposed decline in invitations extended to the likes of Tony Blair, ‘Islington dinner party’ generates more hits on Google than any other London borough. Hampstead comes in a fairly close second. And, pace Aaronovitch, ‘Holland Park dinner party’, ‘Highbury dinner party’ and ‘Kennington dinner party’ give no results at all (though ‘Kensington’ throws up a few). Indeed, if you believe Google, it would seem that there’s never been a dinner party anywhere in South London. I’m quite relieved about this, as I’ll be spending Saturday evening at the house of friends in Peckham, where I hope to be fed, but the idea that I might therefore be doing anything so drearily decadent as attending a dinner party could be enough to keep me at home. As Miss Browning, one of the tea loyalists in Wives and Daughters says, on hearing that Mrs Gibson’s daughter Cynthia, who’s on a visit to London, has been not only to a dinner party but to the theatre, too, ‘Upon my word! And all in one week? I do call that dissipation.’