This morning I had a debate on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with someone called Owen Jones on the issue of class in modern Britain. It was provoked by Lord Fellowes (aka Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey), who argued in a Times interview that toffs are the one remaining minority in Britain against which it is considered acceptable to discriminate.
Recently, he was watching Loose Women — “a programme I rather enjoy” — and one of the participants declared: “I hate posh blokes.” Lord Fellowes says: “There was a cheer from the audience. If I said, ‘I hate Americans’, or ‘I hate blondes’, or ‘I hate common blokes’, that wouldn’t work. But somehow that one was OK.
“And of course it’s not OK. I suppose ‘poshism’ is the last acceptable form of discrimination. Having been fat, bald, posh and male I’m used to a certain amount of humour at my expense but rather than striving towards a pseudo-egalitarianism that in 2,000 years of recorded history has failed to come about, I think we should strive for a position of giving people their worth and being polite.”
Fellowes has lots more eminently sensible stuff to say in this vein. (He’s splendidly scathing about the recent Number 10 barbecue in which the British prime minister and the US president doled out burgers to show what regular guys they were: “There was an era when people wanted to be governed by great kings, then they wanted to be governed by great nobles who would keep the king in his place. Now they want to be governed by great friends. They want to know these people — whether or not they like toffee ice cream — and my natural pull is more towards the statesmen era.”) Indeed, it’s all so glaringly obvious you almost wonder why Today thought it a suitable topic for debate. Isn’t pointing out that toffs are discriminated against in modern Britain a bit like saying that ice cream makes your tooth fillings go funny or that Gordon Brown wasn’t one of the great prime ministers or that squirrels are great hoarders of nuts?
Well I thought so, anyway, but Jones and the interviewer John Humphrys begged to differ. Humphrys’s opening question invited his listeners to roll their eyes at the preposterousness of the notion that toffs faced discrimination, while Jones threw in his tuppeny happeny’s worth about the continued dominance of the “Ruling Classes” and about how many MPs had been to public school and Oxbridge and so on, as if somehow this were a major national scandal which needed to be addressed.
I wonder how parliament would look if Jones got his way. It would be imbued with a lot more earthy, horny-handed, echt, coal-ingrained, sweat-smelling, demotic, multi-ethnic, gender-balanced authenticity, presumably, for as Jones was keen to point out one of the problems with our current ruling class is that they are completely out of touch with the modern world. Actually I agree with him on this point, though not with his analysis of why this is so. The problem with government these days is not that it’s full of rich toffs but that it’s full of career politicos who instinctively want to extend the power of the state and have no understanding of what it is like to be an ordinary taxpayer who just wants to be left alone.
Anyway, Humphrys asked me for evidence that toffs face discrimination, and I suppose the best evidence there is is David Cameron. Here is a man who benefited from the best possible education in the world Eton and Oxford and who instead of feeling proud of the fact has been compelled by our prevailing social mores to behave as if it’s a toxic liability.
You could argue, indeed, that almost everything wrong with our current Coalition can be put down to the fact of David Cameron’s awkwardness about being an old Etonian. He daren’t reduce the 50p tax rate (though it makes economic sense) lest he be seen to be favouring his rich friends in the City; he daren’t create more free schools by allowing entrepreneurs to run them for profit for fear that this might come across as elitist; he daren’t address the issue of the Europe because this is just the sort of thing blimpish, blue-blooded, Tory reactionaries do in the shires, and we can’t have that now, can we?
And, of course, the main reason we’ve got the wretched Coalition in the first place is because Cameron was scared of advancing proper Tory principles, lest he be mistaken for the kind of terrible, evil person who went to a school where they dress you in a smart uniform and teach you all sorts of poncy stuff like Latin and Greek and you come away with ghastly behavioural tics like good manners and a strong desire to succeed.
O tempora! O mores!
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