John Lanchester · Tory Social Attitudes

Presumably there are people out there who admire John Humphrys’s interviewing style. I’m not one of them, and yesterday’s grilling of Neil Kinnock on the Today programme was an example of why not.

Humphrys went after Kinnock on the subject of Labour’s 1992 loss, and whether there was a parallel with the current contest. The gist was: people didn’t vote for you because there was something about you they didn’t like. People might not vote for Brown because there is something about him they don’t like. How does that make you feel? So we had: ‘Your personality played a very large part in your campaign, you think it helped bring about your downfall, do you think that’s going to be the case with Gordon Brown?’ And then: ‘What they did was they looked at you as an individual and apparently they didn’t much like, or at least a lot of them didn’t much like what they saw. They will do the same with GB won’t they?’

When Kinnock accused him of dabbling in ‘pop psychology’ Humphrys said: ‘You know that these things matter because you saw what happened with yourself.’ Kinnock said, mildly enough, that ‘the situation was radically different and I don’t think we’ll learn much from 1992,’ and then went on to say that he accepted his full share of responsibility for that defeat.

This kind of interviewing, in my view, is broken. Apart from the pointless rudeness, Kinnock can’t possibly answer the question by saying a. proposed tax rises did me in (because Labour today are offering tax rises), b. 1992 was a long time ago, so who cares? and c. I was perceived as a Welsh windbag, which is a different thing from a Scottish miserabilist. Because he can’t say those things – which would immediately take on a life of their own and derail the election launch – he has to cling to his talking points. Utility and informativeness of the exchange: zero.

For an example of how to do it, here’s Eddie Mair grilling William Hague on the subject of Christopher Grayling (at 16m50s), the shadow home secretary who said that he sympathised with b-and-b owners who didn’t want to allow gay couples to stay with them. Mair is not rude but he is firm, and Hague does pretty well. It’s a worthwhile exchange because the idea that the social attitudes of the Tories have changed is supposed to be central to the appeal of Cameron’s relaunched, rebranded, ‘decontaminated’ party. I suspect that there’s a huge gap between the way the Tories are talking in public about these issues, and what they really think.

Conspiracy theorists have already noticed that Cameron’s launch speech was supposed to have him saying that he was ‘fighting this election for the Great Ignored – young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight’, but what he actually said was: ‘They may be black or white, they may be rich or poor, they may live in the town or in the country.’ That’s more than slightly different. By Leeds in the evening, the gays and straights were back in Cameron’s speech, and the Tories were saying it was all a side-effect of the fact that he had been talking without notes. To my ear it sounds a bit more considered than that.


  • 7 April 2010 at 12:40pm
    Julia Atkins says:
    Alas, poor Kinnock. Basically he lost because he was unconvincing as a future Prime Minister. The make-over of Old Labour had begun but the change was a year or so away from completion. Kinnock appeared as a political hermaphrodite at a time when social attitudes were not as permissive as today. As for Tories and homosexuality, let's not forget the decades of backwardness on this question that typified the Labour Party and the trades unions.There are more than a few homophobes still nesting in their ranks, though definitely not Blair, Mandelson and Brown. On the subject it might be worth recalling that the German social-democrats were the most advance and pamphlets denouncing anti-gay prejuduce by Ulrichs in the 19th and Hirschfeld in the 20th Century helped educate their part, though not everyone was convinced.In 1869 Marx sent one of Ulrich's pamphlets to Engels for his comment. The response was revealing: ‘That is a quite curious “Urning” which you sent me. Here are the most unnatural revelations. The pederasts are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state. Only the organization is lacking, but according to this it already exists in secret. And since they count such significant men, in all the old and even the new parties, from Rösing to Schweitzer, they cannot fail to succeed. “Guerre aux cons, paix aux trous-de-cul” will be the call now. It is only luck that we are personally too old to have to fear that on the victory of this party we’ll have to pay the victors bodily tribute. But the young generation! Moreover, only in Germany is it possible for such a fellow to appear, transform filthiness into a theory, and solicit. . .’ (Marx-Engels-Werke, vol. 32, pp. 324-5.] William Hague should be informed.

  • 7 April 2010 at 1:31pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I do hope you can keep this up for the next month, John Lanchester. These pieces are very helpful for those of us who don't live in Britain.

  • 7 April 2010 at 2:05pm
    Adrian says:
    I can't bear listening to John Humprhys either - he even seems to have infected the usually level-headed Evan Davis with his idiotic bullying style. But surely any change must start with politicians. (Warning - I'm going to try some possibly inappropriate pop psychoanalysis of my own here).

    If Neil Kinnock spoke completely frankly there would, of course, be a hysterical reaction in the media. But this hysteria in the media seems symptomatic of the neurosis in political parties about getting their press image absolutely right at all times. The press are so used to this that, for the lack of anything more concrete to talk about, the tiniest blemish is magnified many times. A party that started speaking its mind would unleash a media storm to start with - but surely the press (or at least the electorate) would adapt to it after a while and the hysteria would eventually be reserved for the really offensive stuff. (I think that kind of change in communications strategy might take a bit of leadership though, something that none of the parties seems to have when it comes to the media). Even if that's true, what "after a while" means probably isn't shorter than the length of an election campaign.

  • 8 April 2010 at 9:15am
    rogervignoles says:
    Speaking of Neil Kinnock reminds me of a prime example of a politician speaking his mind and being excoriated by the media for doing so. During a discussion of the Falklands war, when somebody commented that at least Mrs Thatcher had guts, Kinnock remarked "It's a pity so many people had to leave their guts in Goose Green to prove it".

    Naturally, this perfectly reasonable, if bitter comment provoked hysteria in the press, as did Cherie Blair's observation that if she were a Palestinian she would understand the desire to become a suicide bomber.

    These were of course both serious issues of the kind this election is unlikely to address.