Never underestimate the resentment of the English middle class for the people who once called themselves their ‘betters’. It storms through English literature from Defoe via Dickens to Kingsley Amis who had Lucky Jim mutter under his breath: ‘You wordy old, turdy old scum, you griping old, piping old bum’ at the privileged and conceited Professor Welch. Admittedly Amis wrote Lucky Jim before he switched from left to right, but then middle-class resentment of what we used to call the establishment has always been as strong on the right as the left.
Few socialist agitators could match the scorn of Margaret Thatcher for the Tory grandees she blamed for appeasing the unions in the Seventies as surely as their predecessors had appeased Hitler in the Thirties. When she came to power, she found it ‘passionately interesting that the things that I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things that I believe have won the election’.
No effortless superiority or metropolitan sophistication there from a Prime Minister who, as Harold Macmillan said, preferred Estonians to Etonians. In that, Thatcher was typical of a deep strain in the English middle class. On the right and the left, it used to believe that distinction could only come with work and ‘effortless superiority’ was an oxymoron. Given that the old guard has seized back control of the Conservative party from Thatcher’s grammar-school boys, it is worth wondering why hardly anyone is stirred by Labour’s attacks on the new breed of ‘Tory toffs’.
You will find part of the explanation the next time you read one of the ‘when I was at Oxford I hated the Bullingdon Club’ articles, which have taken permanent residence in the pages of the liberal press. You can guarantee that the outraged journalist or Labour politician was not at Oxford because they were working on the assembly line at Cowley. When they say ‘I was at Oxford’, they mean they were living in the same colleges and listening to the same tutors as Boris Johnson and David Cameron. They just moved in different social circles.
Freud’s narcissism of small differences can power great hatreds and I have no doubt that the rage at the return of the Etonians is sincere. I feel it myself, while realising that these are tensions within a tiny and privileged part of British society.
If Cameron had taken control of the Conservatives a decade ago, I’m sure the party would have been in trouble, not just with the leftish upper-middle class but the wider population. In all probability, class conflict looms for Cameron after an election victory.
The disgust of middle-class Tories at the decision of their public-school leadership not to allow the building of grammar schools that might compete with the private sector showed that the division on the right between meritocrats and aristocrats remains as deep as it was in Eighties.
But for Labour to try to pick at it now makes no sense for a reason Cherie Blair mentioned at the height of her husband’s ascendancy. ‘Whoever is calling the shots in this country,’ she declared triumphantly, ‘it isn’t the people on the grouse moors.’
Indeed not. Labour has been marching through the institutions for 11 years. With the exception of the armed forces, it has not allowed one state body to stay in the hands of natural conservatives. The Church of England, the BBC, the judiciary, the senior Civil Service, the trusts, agencies and quangos all have a pinkish hue. Even chief constables sound like Harriet Harman.
You can’t run as an anti-elitist when you are part of the elite. You can only argue that you and your kind are best qualified to govern the country. Labour could make their case when Mrs Blair was gloating and Britain was booming. When hard times come, voters blame the people in power for their troubles, not ‘the people on the grouse moor’. The old ruling class has been out for so long it no longer frightens voters, while Labour’s jeers strike them as a cynical distraction from the enveloping economic crisis.
Cynical is the word for it, I’m afraid, although ‘dunderheaded’ and ‘seedy’ would do just as well. In London, Labour dredged through its student book of stereotypes and decided that because Boris Johnson was a ‘toff’ he had to be a ‘racist’.
Although ethnic minority voters and public-sector workers bought the spin, the white working class revolted against the harping on race and Labour’s decision to increase their taxes on the eve of a recession. Council estates that had never voted for a Tory joined with suburbia in turning to Johnson.
Having tried to play the racist card in London, Labour tried to play the race card in Crewe and Nantwich. If the problem with Johnson was that he was a ‘racist toff’, Labour decided that the problem with Edward Timpson was that he was a toff who had proved he wasn’t racist enough when he opposed Gordon Brown’s plans to force foreigners to carry ID. (The accusation wasn’t true, strictly speaking – Labour wants all of us to carry its cards. But little of what Labour has been saying this year has been true, strictly speaking.)
After the last week’s humiliation, MPs are talking about sacking Brown. For what it’s worth, I don’t think a palace revolution would help.
To impose two unelected Prime Ministers on a free country in little more than a year is the work of a party of true aristos that no longer respects the sovereign votes of a democracy and, as importantly, is prepared to waste months on a contest while a dread about the future takes hold.
Labour would do better to realise that millions of working- and middle-class people who can’t see the subtle social differences between Ed Balls’s private school and George Osborne’s are lying awake and wondering if the ground is shifting from under them.
They are sweating about debt, unemployment, repossession, pensions and inflation. Old Etonians are the least of their problems.