Hugo Rifkind

Stop shouting at Hilary Mantel – there are real outrages to address

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It started the other week, when David Cameron was in India. Although it started like a bout of malaria starts, so I suppose the more precise term would be ‘recurred’. There he is in Amritsar, touring the site of a massacre, possibly in that hat. And all Britain wants to know is what he thinks about what Hilary Mantel thinks about the Duchess of Cambridge. What, I thought to myself, the hell is wrong with us?

It’s a pretty expansive ‘us’, this, and it includes Cameron himself. ‘Actually, I haven’t read it,’ he should have said when asked, thousands of miles away, about an essay in the London Review of Books, ‘because I’m here on a trade mission in the second largest country in the world, perhaps you’ve noticed, where the right sequence of negotiations could earn actual hundreds of billions for our fading little country with its spiralling basket case of an economy. And that seems more pressing, really. But pop it over on an email, there’s a love, and I’ll take a peek on the flight back and try to come up with some soundbitey outrage for your news bulletin. If you still care by then. Which you won’t.’

But he didn’t say that, did he? He dived in for the same reason everybody else dived in, which is that we can get our heads around this one. It’s not vast, scary and awful. It’s neat and easy.

Now we have this week’s fuss, which is the Lord Rennard fuss. Me, I’m sitting this one out. I don’t have the energy. Although I do sometimes suspect that there was a small, unnoticed sexual revolution in about 1992 or so, which is why men of my generation and younger know that the way to have sex is to find somebody who is a dead cert to want to have sex with you, and then get drunk and try to kiss them. Whereas before that, inasmuch as I can make out, the technique seems to have been to simply grab hold of literally every bottom or breast that came within groping distance and play the percentages.

Which was bad, obviously. I’m not playing it down. I was groped once, at a busy university drinks party, by a large Young Conservative lady. Thanks to a combination of my fashion choices (baggy, hippyish) and her drunken vigour (considerable), her middle finger went somewhere no other finger would go until I had that slight bowel issue in my mid-twenties. And while I played it quite cool, once I’d, you know, squeezed it out again, it was frankly quite a humiliating experience. If it’s your boss, if you’re a woman, if there’s nobody else around... no, I get it. Bad.

It’s just the mobbishness of it all that gets me down, and the weary inevitability of how these scandals pan out. The way all other news fades, amid front pages about somebody having been told something they said they hadn’t been told at a drinks party in 2008, or whatever. The pious poker-faces of people enjoying themselves enormously. The ticking clock until Tom Watson pretends that he knows more but his life might be in danger for speaking out, or John Mann goes off to frowningly drag in the police. It’s always him, isn’t it? Every time. It’s a wonder they don’t screen his calls.

Don’t get me started on horsemeat, but that’s just the same. You see what I’m driving at, right? I know this stuff matters, and to some people it matters enormously, but surely there’s so much other stuff that matters more. Growth, cuts, deficits, the general decline of everything. Lost AAA ratings and deaths in Syria and Chinese hackers. The horrible things we do to old people in hospitals, and the way those things are only going to get more and more horrible as our sense of compassion melts away like frost and we all get older and there’s barely any money left to have hospitals, anyway.

In Italy, they’re so desperate not to have to think about this stuff that they’ve just gone and voted, en masse, for an actual comedian. Here, we’re snuggling under comfort blankets of outrage. Furious to be furious about something, as long as it’s something we don’t need to think about too hard. Most of it matters a bit and some of it — the BBC’s cover-up of Jimmy Savile, for example — matters a lot. But even when it does, lurking beneath the anger, righteous or otherwise, you can feel the relief at the excuse it gives us to not have to talk about anything else.

Rise and fall

So let’s talk about the latest employment figures. Jobs are up (reaching record levels late last year) but living standards are nonetheless on the slide. According to an editorial in the Times, one interpretation of this slightly counterintuitive trend would be a steady structural decline. Or in other words, we’re regressing, becoming a place where more people earn less. Or in other, other words, we’re doing the opposite of what India is. We’re on the slide.

It gave me a sudden flash of what it all means, this endless recession business. Normally it’s so vague; intimations of fiscal apocalypse, but the world still turns. This, though, had bite. Britain is going backwards. I get it now.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.