This week’s wazzock spat hasn’t polarised people in the way that arguments about class often do; most of us have just enjoyed the spectacle of the pop star James Blunt and the Labour MP Chris Bryant exchanging insults. In case you missed it, Bryant said it was a pity the arts were dominated by public school boys like Blunt, who responded in an open letter to The Guardian by calling him a ‘classist gimp’ and a ‘prejudiced wazzock’, and Bryant wrote back to say that Blunt was being ‘blooming precious’. Blunt said he’d become a pop star despite his poshness, not because of it. In 1969, Nigel Nicolson met some girls at a private boarding school who were experiencing a similar kind of posh anxiety.
They wondered whether they would ever escape from the jolly merry-go-round on which their parents had launched them so impulsively. To be on it was fun; to get off would soon become essential, ‘if we are to have a fair start in life.’ I was amused by the unconscious paradox of the phrase. They loved their school, but they would not send their daughters there. ‘We are the last, generation,’ they said solemnly. I tried to reassure them that what their parents were buying for them was opportunity, not exclusivity, and that when they left nobody would care tuppence what school they had been to; all that mattered was what sort of people they had become. They were not convinced. They would be labelled ‘snobs’. So we discussed the nature of snobbishness, and I began by interrogating them.
‘If a girl came to lunch at home, and used the expression “bound to be found out,” would you catch your brother’s eye if she mismanaged her vowels? ‘Yes.’ ‘If a boy’s clothes were shabby, would you hold it against him?’ ‘No, only if they were dirty as well.’ ‘If your uncle took you to the theatre, and you found that he had booked seats in the gallery, would you feel let down?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So you are conscious of class, but rather ashamed of it?’ They looked at each other. Then a dark, serious girl spoke for them all. ‘Yes, in much the same way that your generation [sizing me up] has a built-in colour-prejudice, but tries to conceal it. We have no colour-prejudice, and our children won’t have any class-prejudice. But I admit that we do, only we try to hide it.’
Actually, Nicolson thought, people should not be ashamed of a bit of light snobbery here and there, because by this point the aristocracy didn’t really exist anymore; Britain had become more meritocratic.
Our self-consciousness about class-consciousness has led us to throw out with the snobbery some of the values on which snobbery was based. The formation of an elite is an inevitable, desirable, actual and constantly self-renewing process. In all nations in all history a small group of men and women have acquired positions of power and influence by birth or their own exertions. One of the ways in which they recognise each other is by a common standard of taste and intelligence, which becomes in effect the ‘language’ in which they converse.
Writing in 1977, Peter Bauer agreed that class was scarcely relevant in Britain, despite much fashionable agonising about it.
According to the stereotype, Britain is governed by a rich ruling caste. Yet Disraeli was twice Prime Minister in the nineteenth century, and Prime Ministers in this century have included Lloyd George, a very poor child, brought up by an uncle who was a shoemaker, and Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a fisherwoman. None of them had been to university; Lloyd George and MacDonald had elementary education only, and Disraeli attended a relatively unknown secondary school. And although Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher have been to university, their background is by no means aristrocratic…Foreigners brought up on the notion of Britain’s class system could not guess that British industry is managed, and has been managed for decades, by new men.
Many distinctions or nuances in such matters as education, dress and speech, which are freely and widely accepted, are related to social standing and class. In this sense Britain has indeed always been a class society. Which western society has not? But, since the early Middle Ages, Britain has not had a closed aristocracy or nobility. Very large numbers of people could always enter the upper classes, including the highest ranks, through marriage, money, services or official favour. Wolsey was the son of a Yorkshire butcher. Queen Elizabeth I was the fifth generation descendant of a serf. And contrary to the complaints that class barriers have obstructed economic progress, or damaged the social fabric, no significant branch of industry or commerce has even been restricted to a particular class.
Bauer argued that class actually promoted achievement because it inspired people to want to move up the social ladder. But a society like this had trouble defending itself.
Britain’s prolonged and largely unquestioned acceptance of differences and distinctions has made it vulnerable in one respect. The upper and upper-middle classes were not forced to examine or rationalise their position. They were thus ill-placed to face the emergence and upsurge of egalitarian sentiment throughout the Western world. Having taken their situation for granted, their representatives could not analyse or explain it. They knew — and perhaps could even articulate — the distinction in rank between a baron, a baronet, and a knight, or even between a CB and a CBE, but not between a differentiated yet open and mobile society on the one hand, and a restrictive, closed, or caste society on the other hand. Still less were they able to cope with the arguments or sentiments behind egalitarian policies, and the granting of far-reaching privileges to trade unions, or the politicisation of social and economic life.
As well as this inability to defend themselves, and all the other appalling accusations levelled at them, it also turns out posh people are terrible at crime. Simon Blow was not surprised that Jonathan Aitken got found out.
The upper classes are not skilled in the art of dishonesty — there is no Fagin in the upper-class nursery and the upper-class criminal is usually found out. (Some would argue that Aitken is not registered upper class, though going to Eton, they say, does something for the pedigree.) The most recent upper-class perpetrator of bungled dishonesty was Lord Brocket, now serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Not long before him was the old Etonian Darius Guppy, and some while before Guppy another old Etonian, Sir ‘Jock’ Delves-Broughton — who, it is now thought, did not murder his wife’s lover, Lord Errol (contrary to the conclusion of the film White Mischief) — bungled an insurance fraud. Sir Jock, a landowner of ancient descent, came a cropper when he sold thousands of acres to go into business. The ventures all failed, and panic provoked the crime. Sir Jock, nearly penniless by his standards, asked his steward at the family stately home to sink a few valuable pictures in a lake. Unfortunately, the paintings rose to the surface. Sir Jock took his life at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool before the police, who were on their way with a warrant and handcuffs, reached him. Upper-class criminals generally collapse when publicly exposed. Their incompetence at pulling off crimes makes their indulgent and extravagant lifestyles look sad and ridiculous.