Democracy resumes her reign
Mercifully enough, there are few moments in the life of a private citizen when he has to make important decisions affecting the quality of his life for many months, if not years, to come. For two weeks now I have been dithering between wine merchants' catalogues in the usual agonies of indecision which attend on annual re-stocking of the cellar; on this occasion my indecision has been made more extreme by uncertainty about Sir Geoffrey Howe's murderous intentions in the Budget.
Those who are not affected by this problem will probably sneer at my anxieties, just as I will certainly sneer if I catch them agonising over their football pools. These are hard times for the traditional Englishman's policy of live and let live. I hope Sir Geoffrey triples or even quadruples the betting tax on football pools. But as it is impossible to write a serious analysis of the threat represented by Jenkinsites to the Conservative millennium with certain words from the Wine Society's Catalogue Raisontie buzzing through my brain — 'soft', 'rich', 'vibrant', 'velvety', 'forward', 'full', 'fleshy', 'silky', 'firm', 'lovely', 'scented', 'stylish', `full-bodied', 'generous', 'fragrant', 'rich, spicy aroma', 'fairly robust', 'well-coloured', 'luscious' — I think I had better give a summary of my conclusions in the matter of wine before passing to the less urgent or interesting matter of politics, the future of democracy as we know it, etc. Those not interested in wine should skip the next paragraph Logically, when threatened by a huge and malicious increase in duty, one should buy large quantities of cheap drinking wine, since the cheaper wines are, proportionately, worse affected by increases in duty. On top of this is the fact that the strong pound ought to bring down the cost of good wine for British drinkers after the 1980 vintage. On the other hand, however strong the pound, the fact remains that better-off foreigners are already richer than we are and look like increasing the gap. Burgundy has priced itself out of my reach, at £4.50 minimum for anything tolerable and named, while claret seems to be catching up fast, at £3.50 minimum for wine of similar quality. Whereas we will always be able to buy plonk out of household expenses, the time may well be approaching when we will not be able to buy good named wine. Every October when wine merchants produce their catalogues, I decide that the dreadful moment has come; look at them again in January, and they seem slightly more reasonable. My conclusions are that it would be insane not to stock up with the 1975 vintage ports which now sell at around 46.00 a bottle (although Berry Bros are already charging £7.68) and the same is true of the 1975 Sauternes which are still amazingly cheap. The Japanese do not seem to have discovered about vintage port or Sauternes yet, but it can't be long. Clarets are more difficult as the 1975s are already horribly expensive, but one has only to glance at the 1976 and 1978 burgundy prices to see what foreigners are prepared to pay. I have decided that 1975 in Bordeaux will probably be the last great French vintage which most Englishmen alive today will ever afford, so that is where my last penny is going. I just hope it will prove as good as the experts say. What is certain is that by 1985, when we are drinking it, we will kick ourselves for not having bought more. But burgundy will soon be a pleasure of the past.
Now that matter is out of the way, turn to the much less urgent topics of the day: what future for Modewation in Politics — although the two may not be quite so unconnected as at first appears. Discussing the prospects of Mr Jenkins's Council for Social Democracy in his valedictory 'Notebook' last week, Geoffrey Wheateroft quoted Ferdinand Mount's paraphrase of Jenkins's political testament as it emerged in his Dimbleby lecture — 'You want to keep .the yobs away from the best claret' and decided that it 'does not sound like electionwinning stuff.' He concluded: 'I do not see their tired manifesto as posing a grave threat to Mrs Thatcher.'
Well, I can only speak for myself and I have only one vote. but I can't think of a single slogan in present circumstances more likely to pull it out than Mr Mount's paraphrases of the Jenkins philosophy — 'You want to keep the yobs away from the best claret.' Of course as a slogan within the residual conventions of consensus politics it would need mellowing, just as a skilful wine merchant can make 'liqueur cognac' out of vile stuff by the addition of caramel and vanilla essence (Belloc used to put a bruised peach in a zinc bath at the bottom of a stairwell and pour the vile stuff over it from a great height, but more of that another day). As slogans go,it might be described as fairly robust and well-coloured, with backbone — firm, even vibrant — but still showing a hard nose, short on generosity and style, no great depth of fruit. Open well in advance of drinking and stand back.
But of course nobody has a defter hand with the caramel and vanilla essence than Mr Jenkins. Indeed his actual remark, which Mr Mount paraphrased so astutely, is positively velvety in its scented aroma: 'You want the class system to fade away without being replaced either by an aggressive and intolerant proletarianism or by the domi nance of the brash and selfish values of a "get rich quick society".'
Pretty smooth, eh? Full, soft, flavoury and luscious I would say, with a honeyed edge. Mr Jenkins may lack the rabblerousing skills of a Danton, a Trotsky or a Goebbels, but his message, if prettily put, is one which appeals to an enormous number of voters, and nearly all of them Conservative voters. We don't want the yobs to get the best claret — or jobs, or education — or to take over The Times, just as we don't want the unions to have any say in our lives, and we don't want Heathco-BovisHeseltine Productions to put up a lot of • filthy modern buildings, either.
It may seem ludicrous to imagine that hundreds of thousands — even millions — of Conservative voters will flock to the drab little banner offered by four tipsy-looking claret-guzzlers as they stand giggling in the sun outside Dr Owen's irritating little home in Limehouse, but I can see it happening. Conservative voters who desert to the Social Democrats will say they are doing so because Mrs Thatcher is too right-wing, too intransigent, but their real reasons for the desertion will be that she has been neither right-wing nor intransigent enough in her handling of the unions; she has failed to make private education or private health tax-allowable; she has poured public money into the bankrupt nationalised industries while allowing small businesses to go to the wall; she has allowed train and postal charges to go through the roof without insisting on the manpower cuts which would have made them unnecessary; she has allowed local authorities to plan their cuts for the maximum inconvenience to the public and minimum inconvenience to themselves; she has left a reduced industry as inefficient and overmanned as ever, annoyed the unions without disabling them, pleased no one except through her initial cuts in the higher rates of personal taxation.
Commentators may write off the general enthusiasm for a 'centre party' as some sort of Poujadist flash-in-the-pan, but the essence of its apparent — as opposed to its actual — appeal is the opposite of Poujade's, an appeal to high moral principles and Modewation: Mrs Thatcher is insufficiently concerned about the unemployed. I should guess that many southern voters will fing the combination irresistible. If the overexcited oafs of Labour's New Dawn succeed in driving out Mr Healey too, the Social Democrats may even become a power to he reckoned with in their own right. South Wales and the plug-ugly North-East Will always vote Labour, whatever happens, while brash get-rich-quickers and farmers will usually vote Conservative, but a grand claret-drinking alliance could yet cause havoc to voting patterns in the south of England. Typically enough, Sir GeoffreY Howe's way of meeting this challenge is t°, propose vast increases in the price of 011 alcoholic drink. One wouldn't have thought, after Wembley, that Mrs Thatcher could lose the next election, but she might just manage it.