The nearest dear old John Major came to a political philosophy was the sentimental desire to preside over a country at ease with itself. Now, almost four years after his bundled exit into the wings, there are signs that his wish for the nation has come true.
Some may work excessively long hours, others may complain of brutal bosses, impossible train services, queues at Sainsbury’s, and too many fudge centres in a Dairy Box, but, pressed for an answer, all would admit that we have never had it so good.
Our concerns are petty and our interests shallow. Evidence that life smiles on the modern Brit abounds, but two examples suffice.
Last week, all over East Anglia, people young and old, rich and poor, sane and otherwise, were to be found opening cans of baked beans and counting the contents, one by one. This quest to establish how many beans make a can was sparked off by Keith Greentree, 59, a disc jockey on BBC Radio Norfolk. (That a sexagenarian earns a living playing records and chatting to first-time callers from Diss says much that is comforting about modern Britain.) True to the requirement of his calling, he was musing vapidly on air, random thoughts flitting in and out of his consciousness, when suddenly he asked out loud how many beans were to be found in a can. That did it.
Etiolated and feeble though we modern Britons may be compared to the stoical citizenry that braced itself to repel the Nazi invader, show us a challenge and we will rise to it. No sooner had Mr Greentree’s idle inquiry hit the ether than the good people of Norfolk were tripping over slumbering cats in their rush to reach their larders and count.
For four days the debate raged. There were counts and recounts of a kind so intense and fevered as to make the Florida vote seem a feeble-blooded affair. At length, Mr Greentree, by now a wiser and chastened man, called a halt. No conclusion had been drawn, no purpose served, and, most important, no harm done. Throughout the great bean count, East Anglia had retained its essential qualities of equanimity and good natured fair-mindedness.
Further proof that we are at peace with ourselves was to be found lying at the kerbside outside the Bridge Hotel at Shawford near Winchester. There, at the scene of the fictitious death of the fictitious TV character Victor Meldrew, lay piles of floral tributes: they alone were real, left by mourners for whom truth and fiction is a continuum. So at ease are these TV viewers that they willingly surrender themselves to a fantasy world populated by contrived celebrity and ersatz emotion. For them, the telly is more real than reality.
And why not? Life there is more colourful, frantic, intense and neatly encapsulated than the bundle of loose ends and unresolved emotions that confront us when, satiated and exhausted, we extinguish the cathode glow and creep up to a bed full of disturbed dreams. Victor Meldrew touched emotions and was therefore real. In modern Britain we have learned to answer our feelings, to empathise with others, to feel their pain. Truly, this is a land fit for florists.
Into this contentment wades Trevor Beattie, New Labour’s adman, with the message that we are at ease with ourselves, free to count beans and mourn the death of imaginary characters, because we live under the blissful dispensation of the Great Blair.
Beattie, of course, is hailed as something of an advertising genius, mainly on the strength of his work for French Connection. His apocalyptic creation of a new era was not unlike Genesis as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: Beattie’s fingertip reached out to touch his client’s and bang! a divine spark arced with a force so startling that it prompted the misspelt expletive, “Fcuk me!”.
Some were offended, but Beattie defended himself. “I am a copywriter,” he said. “What do people think I do all day?”
All day? Really? To write a word that a dyslexic child could have penned in a second?
He admits, however, that he did not compose the bardic line “Hello Boys” for the Wonderbra campaign. Nor did he write “Fancy a good time, dearie?” or “Psst, wanna see some dirty postcards?”, both of which predate his creative hegemony.
He brings his formidable gifts to New Labour, and the fruits of his genius are to be seen hanging on poster sites across a nation at ease with itself. One shows a nondescript fellow declaring, “I did it. I created new jobs for a million people.” The other shows a glum young woman with a towel around her head, making the equally preposterous claim, “I’m responsible for the lowest inflation for over 30 years.” “If you voted for a change in 1997 – thank you,” say both posters.
The late Willie Whitelaw, for whom the English language was a minefield, once accused an opponent of going around the country stirring up apathy. To judge from his poster campaign, this is the duty with which Beattie is charged. It is a wise approach, wholly at one with the mood of the nation.