By John Lloyd
England, wrote George Orwell in 1941, “is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”
Many still believe that, including the non-British, especially the Americans, who see a country with the most magnificent monarchy in Europe, the House of Lords, the expensive private schools (which the British call “public”), the gentleman’s clubs in walking distance of Buckingham Palace, the old universities which had for centuries been reserved for the titled and the wealthy … as the true England.
And is it still? Three events last month – “White Van Man” “Plebgate” and “Drunk ex-minister in a taxi” – showed how far away we British believe we are from the stereotype.
White Van Man first. This has become almost a social class in itself: referring to men, usually tradesmen, who drive white vans and who are stereotyped as possessing a range of attitudes – extreme patriotism, anti-Europeanism, conservatism, perhaps racism. They’re looked down on by progressives.
Two weeks ago, the Labour MP Emily Thornberry, who is one of the opposition party’s shadow ministers on legal affairs, was in the south of England constituency of Rochester and Strood, trying to get out the Labour vote in a by-election. The contest was ultimately won comfortably by UKIP, the new anti-EU group.
Thornberry took a picture on her phone of a modest terraced house covered in English flags with a white van in front of it. She sent out a tweet with the photograph, with “Image from Rochester” on it.
The MP’s tweet on White Van Man, though apparently neutral, was probably condescending – for all that she, and her brother, protested that they had been brought up in modest circumstances, in public housing. To no avail. Thornberry resigned – or was fired from – her shadow minister’s job.
Then there is “Plebgate”. Plebs, the Latin-derived collective noun, meant the common people of Rome, free men and women, not slaves – but not patricians, either. The English “public schools”, where classical studies were the core of the syllabus and classical Rome was the admired civilisation, called the non-aristocratic pupils “plebeians” (not now), to mark them out from the sons of noblemen. “Pleb” became an insult, a way of sneering at the lower social orders
And so it was used by Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative cabinet minister, who in September 2012 is said to have let loose a torrent of foul language at a policeman who had told him not to ride his bicycle in Downing Street. The enclosed street leads to the prime minister’s house and office at No. 10. Among the foul language directed at Constable Toby Rowland, who had stopped him, was the word “pleb”.
Mitchell insisted he had never used the word. He sued the Sun newspaper, the country’s biggest seller, which had claimed that he did. Last week, in the High Court in London, a judge ruled for the newspaper and Rowland, preferring to believe the humble policeman rather than the rich politician. Everywhere, it was hailed as a triumph of the common man. The Times, once the top people’s paper, wrote that the former minister was “a blustering and high-handed grandee with little time or respect for the niceties that other people live by”.
If Thornberry was subtle, Mitchell was certainly explicit: his explosion, reportedly – “best you learn your f***ing place, you don’t run this f***ing government, You’re f***ing plebs” – was not the kind of dialogue for Downton Abbey, not the way those delightful patricians would dream of speaking to their loyal staff. In the same week as Mitchell lost his case, a former Conservative minister, David Mellor – like Mitchell, a highly paid lawyer – shouted at a taxi driver in an argument over the route to his $12.5 million home. Mellor emphasised that he – Mellor – was a very clever and very distinguished man indeed, a Queen’s Counsel and a former Cabinet minister – unlike the driver, who was a “sweaty stupid little s**t”.
As scenes from the class war, these were dramatic, and everywhere they attracted the most severe criticism.
The Labour leader, Ed Milliband, said Thornberry’s tweet was “disrespectful”, and that he was “furious” about it. As well he might be. Though Labour did badly in the Rochester by-election, the party did not expect to win: and its activists were prepared to rejoice in the embarrassment of the Conservatives, who had long held the constituency. Instead, Labour was top of the news – and not in a welcome way.
Mellor, who presents a show on the classical music station Classic FM (for which, as he shouted at the cab driver, he had won an award), used the end of his programme to apologise humbly for his action – saying it was what he deserved, and hinting that he was drunk – a kind of excuse. He promised to give “a substantial donation” to a taxi drivers’ charity.
What has happened in Britain in the last few decades is that upper class snobbery is no longer tolerated, at least not in public. The upper classes – especially upper class politicians – must at least pretend to be modest egalitarians. The deference once shown by the lower classes to the higher has not gone – but it’s no longer common. It’s my experience that the upper classes and the wealthy get more real deference in countries more officially egalitarian – as France, Italy, Russia.
George Orwell wouldn’t write today that England is “the most class-ridden country under the sun”. Because in the decades since he wrote, something has strengthened that was long a part of the country’s culture – a sense that we are all equal, no matter what the social rank.
The Scots poet Robert Burns wrote 150 years ago, in his poem “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” that “The rank is but the guinea stamp/A man’s a man, for a’ that.”
That is, social position is only a matter of money – and money is no sign of human worth. For all the kings and queens and lords and medieval flummery to which it is so attached, Britain has quite a republican spirit: as the upper classes have been reminded this past month.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004)