The culture war on toffs and chavs
Today’s liberal smart set hates the posh and the poor, seeing both as blasts from a best-forgotten past.
So who are the most put-upon, derided people in modern British society? Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, believes it is posh folk. He caused a ripple of controversy this week when he claimed that ‘poshism’, alleged discrimination against toffs, is rife in the twenty-first century. Hating posh blokes is the ‘last acceptable prejudice’, he said. Others have countered that in fact it’s the white working classes, sometimes sneeringly referred to as ‘chavs’, who bear the brunt of opinion-formers’ opprobrium. Polly Toynbee of the Guardian says ‘chav’ is ‘the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain’, an expression of ‘venomous class hatred’.
In fact, the most striking thing today is the extent to which both toffs and chavs have become objects of ridicule amongst the smart set. Mocking so-called toffs and sneering against so-called chavs are now the favoured pastimes of the political and media elites. The privately educated foxhunting brigade who cover themselves in Barbour might be a million metaphorical miles away from the young men and women who live on inner-city council estates and have a penchant for tracksuits and bling. But what both these sections of society share in common is an attachment to what we might call ‘Old England’, to traditional values, and that makes them immediately suspect in the eyes of an influential commentariat that fancies itself as pomo, uber-cosmopolitan and so over the past.
Of course it is crazy to claim, as Fellowes does, that posh people face actual discrimination. That’s as fictional as Downton Abbey. It remains pretty easy for well-educated, well-connected people to get highly prized jobs in politics and the media, as confirmed by the number of former Eton boys in the current government and the predominance of hereditary journalists in the media. But it is true that it is acceptable today, if not de rigueur, to look down (up?) one’s nose at those who were born into privilege. In a frightening flashback to the idea that people are defined by the circumstances of their birth, that who we are is determined by a mish-mash of pater’s sperm and how we were schooled, many commentators now expose a politician’s or celebrity’s privileged background as a way of calling into question their true motivations and presenting them as suspect.
So Labour Party activists and supporters who campaigned against the Tory candidate Edward Timpson in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008 vilified him as a ‘toff’, as if that were enough to rubbish his political beliefs. David Cameron’s government is frequently written off as an ‘extension of the Bullingdon Club’ – an exclusive dining club at Oxford University – as if a man’s student antics define him for the rest of his life. (God, I hope that isn’t true.) Having had a nanny, having attended Eton, having once worn a top hat and tails – all those things are now held up as instant indicators of an individual’s true and inescapable inner self. It is meant to sound radical – bash the rich! – but in truth it eerily echoes the equally fatalistic and hopefully outdated notion that being born poor makes you feckless or being born black makes you uncouth.
Fashionable toff-bashing, now widely indulged in the liberal media and by Labour Party hacks, likes to present itself as an edgy class war against unfair privilege and the alleged dominance of the Eton set over political life. In reality, it is a highly individuated campaign rather than a political battle, motivated more by the politics of envy and resentment for the rich than by anything resembling a principled position on wealth creation or distribution. Where class warriors of old not only attacked the wealthy but also put forward an alternative vision for how the world should be run, today’s farcical toff-haters simply lambast the dress sense, eating habits and old-fashioned attitudes of the pearl-wearing set. In the recent complaints about the ‘sharp-elbowed’ sons and daughters of toffs getting internships ahead of the sons and daughters of the middle classes, we can glimpse the personal bitterness that drives modern-day posh-bashing.
Yet the cultural elite can just as easily turn its intellectual guns away from toffs and on to ‘chavs’. Polly Tonybee’s column this week on the ‘class hate’ that fuels the use of that c-word was written in response to a tweet by Baronnes Hussein-Ece, a Lib Dem peer who sits on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which said: ‘Help. Trapped in a queue in chav land.’ Yet the Guardian is not in a good position to attack chav-bashing. Its writers have slated white working-class communities for being ‘paranoid, suspicious, mistrustful, misogynist and racist’, have described football fans as ‘knuckle-dragging cretins’, and have lamented the state of ‘ugly, thick white Britain’.
In the spat over whether toffs or chavs are most hated by the modern-day great and the good, some have sought to depict the demonisation of chavs as a sport played exclusively by poshos – by princes William and Harry, who have dressed up as chavs, or by newspapers like the Telegraph with their alleged ‘war on single mums’. In truth, those old-style, right-wing prejudices, particularly against single mothers, have far less cultural purchase today than they did in the past. Now, attacks on the white working classes, on so-called chavs, are far more likely to come from liberal commentators or from the Labour left than from right-leaning snobs. From New Labour’s war on cheap booze and junk food to the Guardian’s attacks on the knuckle-dragging paranoiacs on council estates to the development of intrusive ‘early intervention’ policies aimed at preventing the children of the poor from turning into maniacs, it is clear that the idea that there are feral bits of Britain that need re-education or rescue is now propagated more enthusiastically by liberals than by conservatives.
In short, it is the same people who bash toffs who also attack chavs: what we might call the opinion-forming classes, the influential cultural elite. This section of society heaps disdain on both the man in the pub and the man in the country pile; both the chav with the dangerous dog and the toff with the hunting hounds; both the footie fan who waves the St George Cross and the posho who insists on saluting the Union flag. They have a cultural revulsion for the values of both the privileged and the working classes, seeing both as old-fashioned, too nationalistic, and too attached to land and pride and beer and other things that are so 1910. So toffs are widely described as being ‘stuck in the past’ and the Guardian lays into the ‘social conservatism’ of white working-class communities. A cultural elite that fancies itself as being detached from tradition, which is embarrassed by the old imperial outlook, and which considers itself more European than British, snobbishly looks upon both toffs and chavs as blasts from a best-forgotten past. ‘If the past was so great, then why does all the pooled knowledge available to us from Britain’s social and economic history suggest that it was, in fact, shit?’, said the opening to a casually disdainful Guardian article on the need to ‘bury working-class conservatism’.
It is important to note that it is not a genuine progressive cosmopolitanism that drives the cultural elite’s disdain for the old workers and the old rulers of British society; it is not a real and meaningful desire to redefine what Britain stands for or what values it should embrace that motors their attack on the two great classes of old. Rather it is their own lack of conviction, their own dearth of any principled or positive vision for society, which makes them lash out against anyone who still seems to believe in something and who even waves flags (eurgh) to express that belief. When Tony Blair declared war on ‘the forces of conservatism’ in 1999 (when, post-Kosovo but pre-Iraq, he was still the messiah of the chattering classes), he said his ‘forces of change… don’t respect tradition and don’t stop at national boundaries’. It was the Blair set’s inability to outline a new vision for Britain that led them to become increasingly intolerant of the old ones, leading to assaults both on foxhunting toffs and flag-waving football followers, all of whom were seen as ‘forces of conservatism’ by a cultural elite that is almost nihilistic in its lack of belief and its lack of attachment to a set of clear values.
In many ways, of course, the rise of toff-hatred and chav-attacks speaks to the very real, objective decline of two major classes: the old conservative ruling class and the powerful working class. As a result of some sweeping historic shifts over the past 20 years, the old-style ruling class has been robbed of its raison d’être and has seen its values derided and denigrated, while the working class has become sidelined, elbowed off the public stage by the decline of progressive left-wing politics and increasingly treated as a blob of people in need of help rather than as a class of people that can do things for itself. And into the vacuum left by the demise of the old right and the old left, assuming political and intellectual influence almost by default, come the value-lite middle classes, the modern-day cultural elite, who are spectacularly intolerant of both the well-spoken class above them and the chippy class beneath them.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.
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