I recently re-visited an old (1973) radio debate between Michael Foot, Enoch Powell, Roy Jenkins and Reginald Maudling. Of course, the economic context under discussion is now redundant. At that time there was still a general assumption that a controlled, or pseudo-socialist economy, was the best one. Foot, then 60, was at his peak, the man of the left before Benn usurped him. This was when he was still able to give clear answers – before he degenerated into a master of grandiloquent euphemisms as Labour leader.
I guessed by the end that Roy and Reggie had become centrists and corporatists, suspicious of ideological certainties. Jenkins was in a funny situation because it was later revealed that he wanted Labour to lose in 1974. Maudling was at one point the great hope of the Conservatives. He subsequently fell out with Mrs Thatcher and took to drink. And, of course, Powell, at that stage still very much the man in the wilderness, advocating free market policies before their time. Yet almost everything he said was prescient, especially his reflections on Europe and his allusion to socialism being the results of a select few sitting in Whitehall departments and planning.
Yet what struck me most was that each politician spoke lucidly without interruption or resorting to name-calling. Forty years on, and not only do we have the likes of Russell Brand and Nigel Farage abusing each other on Question Time, but the audience is starting to resemble the Jerry Springer show. Soon a team of security guards will be brought in to separate the warring parties. Robin Day, former host of what used to be a (mostly) civilised discussion programme, would be mortified.
What will TV be like in another 40 years’ time? Doubtless there will be live sex with a studio audience voting for their favourite sex act. There is something genuinely and profoundly off-putting about modern Britain – the general coarsening of debate, the fact that every press article about someone has to tell us the value of his house or his income, the omnipresence of dolly-bird newscasters and presenters.
Yes, I’m happier in the past when newsreaders were dignified and authoritative, perhaps ever so slightly crumpled or curmudgeonly – when Reginald Bosanquet ruled the roost at ITN along with Alastair Burnet, Sandy Gall and Andrew Gardner and when Robin was grand inquisitor and when Peter Woods had big wrinkles under his eyes and when the only hair adjustments needed were to Reggie’s wig.
So excuse me while I step into my time machine. I’m about to advise Mrs. Thatcher on her Conservative leadership bid.