There are not meant to be taboos any more. From Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, to Lady Gaga’s meat dress, from Ricky Gervais’s use of the word “mong,” to Grayson Perry’s pink frocks, culture seems always to be breaking with convention. Shock matters more than chic. As deference has disappeared and the old elites have been overturned, freedom is worshipped in the Facebook age. Henry Miller’s assertion that “whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens,” rings loud and true.
Except, it seems, in politics. In Westminster taboos still carry enormous power. The armed forces, home ownership, and the Queen are off limits; the squeezed middle, banker-bashing and wishy-washy environmentalism are de rigueur.
Each party has its own taboos, of course. For New Labour, scarred by the 1992 shadow budget which was blamed for its general election defeat, it was always tax. For David Cameron’s Conservatives, desperate to shed the “nasty party” image, it was the NHS. “There are certain unbreakable taboos,” says a Tory cabinet minister. “It would be impossible for a Conservative who isn’t a Eurosceptic to win the leadership. Because political party membership has shrunk, parties are to a greater extent prisoners of their bases.”
And yet, across the spectrum, there is a remarkable consensus about what it is acceptable to challenge. Patrick Diamond, who worked at No 10 under Tony Blair, says the mandarins who remain in place when governments change are technocratic not revolutionary. “The options that are considered feasible and legitimate are very often framed by the civil service,” he says. “There’s an underlying conformity of thought which makes it very difficult for politicians to break out of those pathways with radical ideas.”
Pragmatism also plays a part. Leaders are afraid of voters’ prejudices when an election draws near. Politicians rail against the “forces of conservatism” or the “enemies of enterprise” then quiver before middle England. All too often radicalism looks like—and sometimes means—abandoning the centre ground. “Political geography concentrates swing voters in certain parts of the country,” says one senior Tory. “There are upper working class and lower middle class voters in constituencies… around big cities who tend to have certain preoccupations—crime, immigration, living standards—and they exercise disproportionate influence relative to their numbers. The squeezed middle are among the most powerful people in Britain.” “At our best when at our boldest,” Blair once said. Caution, however, is often the easier path.
Now, though, taboos…