Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Toffs and Oiks and Plebs in Britain today

I’ve no idea whether Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell actually called the policemen who got in his way “Plebs” or not – but it is the sort of thing that someone of his class and background might say – on a bad day. It is reported that the Etonians in the Bullingdon set at Oxford (the “Toffs”) referred  to George Osborne as an “Oik” because he “only” went to what they saw as a “Minor Public School” (St Pauls) -  the social gradations of the privileged are extensive! Mitchell was educated at Rugby School and Cambridge and his background is as impeccably upper middle class as Osborne’s and, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he seems to have overcome the disadvantage of not being an Etonian!

All societies are stratified and it is often in those which claim to be the most egalitarian that the strata are most defined. Think of the politburos of the “Marxist” Soviet Union or of “Communist” China. Think also of how post-revolutionary France soon re-established its social hierarchy and how the aristocracy soon returned to their châteaux – they are still there. Even the United States, which was built on the foundations of “All men are created equal”, has its social structure and the idea that money buys privilege is part of the American dream. And that money doesn't just buy privileges for the generation that acquires it – it buys advantage for their children and their children's children as well. Look at the Kennedys or the Bushs – or the Romneys for that matter.

In Britain we used to have a class system that was utterly rigid with virtually no mobility at all. The rise and rise of the Middle Classes in the nineteenth century changed that and the post-war arrival of the Welfare State (particularly the provision of good education and healthcare to all) obviously made the acquisition of wealth, and the better jobs which create it, much more universal.  Some saw the election of a Socialist Government in Britain in 1945 as being the death knell of the Upper Classes – what Evelyn Waugh saw as the “rise of the Hoopers” (in Brideshead Revisited) seemed to forecast the triumph of the Middle Classes. To a great extent that happened – although the disappearance of the Aristocracy did not accompany it. In one sense we became rather more meritocratic and American as “Grammar School boys” (their excellent educations funded by the State) gained employment, wealth and position. Successive British Prime Ministers from 1964  to 1997 - Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major - were not products of the Independent school system and the mini-revolution seemed complete. In 1992 John Major said:

“The development of a truly classless society, with opportunities for all, from wherever they came, to do whatever they can with their own lives, by their own efforts, and with encouragement to achieve everything that they can. That is the sort of society that my colleagues and I will be working hard to build in the next few years.”

Whilst this rhetoric was welcome, and it is certain that Major believed it, in fact Britain was moving in the other direction. In 1997, for the first time since 1963, a public school boy became Prime Minister. Tony Blair had been educated at Fettes, seen by some as a Scottish “Eton College” – and in 2010 he was succeeded (after the brief Brown interregnum) by David Cameron - a pukka Etonian. Meanwhile one of the less remarked upon changes was taking place in the world of education. The upwardly mobile baby-boomer generation, who achieved their position thanks to the grammar schools and the huge expansion of the University system, turned their backs on the State for the education of their own progeny! The Public schools, helped by an advantageous tax system and charitable status, became aspirational to the wealthier boomers for their children's schooling. In one sense this could be seen as a positive move in the direction of equality – it was no longer only the children of the “inherited wealth” rich who could afford a private education for their children. The reality is, however, that elitism was not reduced but increased by this phenomenon – as the gap between the performance of even the best state schools and the independent sector illustrates. Follow the money. The establishment of State School “Academies” and, especially, the new breed of “Free schools” – both of which ape independent schools in their style and culture – is a kneejerk “If you cant beat them join them” response by successive governments.

John Major’s noble words of twenty years ago have been lost as the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. The world of “Noblesse Oblige” probably died out before the aristocratic Cameron, Osborne , Johnson, Mitchell and the rest were born. But the class gradations that their superior education inculcated in them live on in they way they speak  ( although as Christopher Howse recently hilariously pointed out they do try and modify that with glottal stops)! And it is that fact which lies behind Andrew Mitchell’s insult to the Police. He spoke in a sneering superior way not because he made a mistake but because he let down his guard and the real Andrew Mitchell emerged. The Old Rugbyean. The son of privilege. The Oxbridge man. The Officer and a Gentleman who in truth is not a Gentlemen at all. Bit of an oik really.