Plebs versus poshos? Pull the other one

The chattering classes’ declaration of war against the toffs in the Cameron cabinet is the least convincing class war in human history.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Britain is in the grip of a ‘class war’. There’s an all-out shouting match between ordinary, state-educated people on one side, and Eton-educated poshos on the other.

In the red corner we have the working classes, bravely led by Ed Miliband, son of famous sociologist Ralph and native of Hampstead, who once met and even spoke to some black people when he was a student at a state school. And in the blue corner we have the so-called toffs of David Cameron’s ‘millionaires’ cabinet’, who are referred to as ‘Bullingdon bruisers’, after the posh students’ club at Oxford that some of them were once members of. And there will be blood, apparently. According to one commentator, ‘Dave and his kitchen-supper cronies are today’s version of the aristocratic philosophes in pre-Revolutionary France whose antics led them eventually and deservedly to the guillotine’. Hurrah! Off with their heads! Let them eat dirt!

Is it just me, or is this the least convincing class war in the whole of human history? Having the chattering classes use their newspaper columns to hurl a few insults at the Tories and their toffish supporters looks to me less like a class war than a dinner party gone wrong, like when a hostess foolishly sits an old dear who once voted for Thatcher next to a young man who only eats organic and has a photo of Tony Benn on his bedroom wall. That such elite bitching and sniping, that such infantile name-calling between two sections of the same cushioned, cut-off political and media classes, can seriously be described as a ‘class war’, actually exposes how emptied of content and meaning the category of class has become.

The current ‘class war’ has been brewing for a couple of years, as various Labour people and their media cheerleaders started moaning about the posh backgrounds of the Cameron coterie. But it really exploded after Cameron’s chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, called the policemen guarding the gates at Downing Street ‘plebs’. Now, normally there has been more to a class war than having a red-faced Tory buffoon on a bike insulting some of the most heavily armed members of the body of armed men that protects the British state (or ‘the filth’ as we call them where I come from, not ‘plebs’). To my eyes, Mitchell’s fractious interlocution with machine gun-wielding coppers was less the first salvo in a class war than it was a temporary falling-out between different wings of the same contemptuous, masses-fearing state. But others saw it differently (hilariously referring to the incident as ‘a privileged man [sneering] at two working people’), and now Plebgate has allowed the whispering class war of recent years to explode to the forefront of the political scene.

The knives – or, in keeping with the French Revolution theme, the bayonets stained with the blood of liberty – are out for Cameron’s toffs. Modern-day Sans-culotte Polly Toynbee (Badminton, Oxford, great granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle) chastises the Tories for only caring about their ‘leafy shire constituents’ and not giving a fig about ‘the plebs… the bottom half’. Others argue that with Mitchell’s pleb comment, the ‘mask [slipped] from Cameron’s posturing plutocrats’, exposing them as ‘repulsive’ individuals who are now caught up in ‘Class War II’. Class War II looks set to be a defining feature of politics in the coming months: both Ed Miliband (leafy Hampstead boy whose rise up the political ladder was facilitated by the sort of nepotism that would have made Gaddafi blush) and Yvette Cooper (daughter of the former Chairman of the British Nuclear Industry Forum) used their Labour conference speeches this week to have a pop at the toffs and screw up their faces in pity for the plebs.

Partly, Class War II is just enormously funny, as the various dignitaries and daaahlings of the media and liberal political sets effectively take part in a naff fancy-dress version of the old class wars of old. Their toff-bashing is driven by the cheapest sort of political populism, where they promote caricatured versions of Cameron’s cabinet in order to try to worm their way into the affections of ‘the bottom half’, whom they are also utterly cut off from and thus must find some way, any way, to connect with us. Their caricaturing is clear in one columnist’s claim that Andrew Mitchell might as well have been ‘wearing a silk top hat, white tie and tails, sporting a monocle, puffing a fat cigar and swigging from a bottle of champagne’. He wasn’t wearing or doing any of those things, of course, but that is the image that today’s brave class warriors love to fight (tweet) against: cartoon toffs lifted straight from the pages of a Victorian-era issue of Punch magazine.

But also, the bluster of Class War II obscures what is new about politics today, including about the ‘toffs’ currently at some of the top tables. It’s true that many in the upper echelons of the Cameron set seem to have emerged through certain social and political networks: Eton-Oxford-Chipping Norton-etc. There’s a palpable cliquishness, a sameyness of experience. But this reflects, not the conscious, class-based takeover of modern Britain by seventeenth century-style toffs, but rather the increasingly oligarchical nature of all of British politics today. The more that the mainstream parties, particularly the Tories and Labour, have lost vast swathes of their memberships and become estranged from the public, the more reliant they have become on behind-the-scenes networking over public engagement, and on mutual backscratching over any serious attempt to win the fulsome support of sections of the public and the punch that traditionally went alongside that. Cameron and Co.’s falling-back on toff networks reflects the demise of the traditional means for politicians to make a name and carve out a constituency for themselves, not the return of the old, posh, mad ruling classes.

So yes, some of the Cameron set seem to have made good use of the ‘Bullingdon route’ into the heart of the political oligarchy. But Ed Miliband and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg took other, equally aloof routes into it, in a fashion every bit as insulated from the demos as being a member of Bullingdon is. The young Clegg started his political journey in those epitomes of oligarchical politics, the European Commission and the European Parliament – where he was not only politically cut off from the British masses, but physically too. It was there that he developed his contact books and forged the cliquish networks that would help propel him up the Lib Dem ladder. Ed Miliband worked his way through the media and the backrooms of Labour’s big-hitters, trading on his famous surname as he went, before being handed the super-safe Labour seat of Doncaster North in 2005, effectively his prize for having worked so diligently behind the scenes for so long. Miliband was the first person who wasn’t a miner or the son of a miner to win in Doncaster North. But he is the Son of Ralph, which counts for far more in the modern Labour Party than having any connection with working people.

The caricaturing of the Cameron set as toffs who might as well wear monocles disguises the fact that the so-called Bullingdon approach – that is, entry into politics through school-tie or nepotistic or favour-owing means – is rife today, from the Tories to Labour to the Lib Dems. The isolation of these parties from the people they profess to represent encourages them to become increasingly reliant on other, strikingly undemocratic means of promoting themselves and forging party identities and policy stances. Anyway, even a fleeting glance at modern Britain should make it clear that it isn’t toffs in top hats who are sneering at and attacking the plebs; instead, there is an army of totally un-toffish public-health officials, social workers, anti-obesity campaigners, parenting experts, relationship advisers, eco-warriors and politicians of all persuasions who make moralistic war on the ‘bottom half’ day in, day out. Now that Class War II has been exposed as a daft piece of theatrics, how about a Class War III, a real one, against the true pleb-bashers of our era?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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