This may be an extreme point of view, but I think novelists should learn to drive. I don’t know how exactly, but a reader can tell when an author has never gripped a steering wheel. Perhaps there are no descriptions of motoring in any of the books, or too many train journeys — or else the motoring passages simply don’t ring true. It’s a trivial detail, I agree, but somehow it seems only fair that a writer can plausibly describe an activity that might occupy many people for several hours a day.
In the same vein I think politicians should make some use of the internet. To several million electors it has become the single greatest source of entertainment and knowledge in their lives, and the most significant technological development within memory — hence MPs should know at first hand what it means to their constituents and what services matter most. Besides, as it has now become mandatory for politicians of all colours to drop enthusiastic references to technology when they can, the least we can ask is that they sound believable when they mention it.
Surprisingly few do. Given the youth of Tony Blair, and given that he is an educated man and was at the time the father of young children, does not the fact that he barely touched a computer before or during his premiership seem evidence of some mental oddity? If nothing else, it suggests an extraordinary lack of inquisitiveness.
Or perhaps he was simply being shrewd. Perhaps technology is one of those strange all-or-nothing areas for politicians — like football and popular music — where it is acceptable for a politician to be either a keen fan or a completely uninterested bystander, but where any attempt to fake enthusiasm is a disaster. Maybe Gordon Brown can no more believably speak of YouTube than of the Arctic Monkeys.
Well, someone who can write convincingly about these things is the person who composed the Conservative manifesto. I downloaded all three manifestos recently and was scanning them for words such as ‘broadband’, ‘digital’ or ‘internet’ simply to see where their emphasis lay on matters technological when, to my surprise, I found myself reading for pleasure. The Tory work is by far the most digital of the three, and contains the clearest vision of what a technologically enabled society could be like.
As with the others, it is too vague in its promise to roll out high-speed broadband to the whole population — given how modest the cost would be. If anyone believes it is a better use of £3 billion for London to host a series of minor sporting events for two weeks in 2012 when the same money could give the whole country superfast internet access in perpetuity, they are strange indeed. A nationwide high-speed broadband network would be one of the ways in which we would benefit from being crammed on to an over-populated little island.
But the rest is good. There is sound stuff on data protection, on DNA, on smarter electricity networks. The only thing we need first is for Cameron to show that he is as much a master of old technology (television) as he is of the new. It’s worth remembering that Ronald Reagan was over-rehearsed for early TV debates — something which was quickly put right.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 24, 2010