Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Toff Business

Jonathan Freedland has an article in the Guardian where he says that class war does have an impact on politics - but only if it is handled very very carefully.

He points out that the Tories are very sensitive to charges of elitism. For instance they managed to get the owners of the infamous Bullingdon picture to stop granting further publication (though luckily organisations such as the Telegraph, which got permission to publish before the ban, still display the picture - you can see it here). And he quotes a remark in the FT:

As Stefan Stern wrote in the Financial Times last week: "If David Cameron is so proud of the 'great school' he attended - it was Eton, by the way - why does he never mention it by name in public?"

Also, it's no accident that the last three Tory prime ministers - Heath, Thatcher and Major were all state educated - they acted as a cloak for the elitists in their party.

So why has the Labour toff campaign failed? In part because it was too crude and heavy-handed. People don't mind wealth if it has been earned. And people don't mind eccentric clothes either, which is what top hats and tails is - this is Britain after all, you can wear whatever you like no matter how silly.

What they do mind is if it is perceived that they are being shut out of a club. The real criticism of the Bullingdon club for instance was never the silly clothes. It is that they refuse to let jews or black people join (still, even though it is 2008). And because the club exists to harrass ordinary people by smashing their property and enjoying the distress this caused before the victims were compensated (what a jolly jape, as Boris would say).

Unfortunately the Labour campaign has focused just on clothes and not on deeds.

It's also instructive to see how the Tories counter charges of elitism. Their main charge against Tamsin Dunwoody was that she had a large house/farm in Wales and was listed in DeBretts and claimed therefore she was a toff too, (though her circumstances are far removed from Timpson's £53 million fortune). Elsewhere, in the Guardian, among the comments you get frequent assertions that "the Labour party is a middle-class party", "the majority of the Labour cabinet went to public school", "the majority of Labour MPs went to public school" and a variation of this "the majority of Labour MPs went to grammar school, then they abolished them, what hypocrites". And it's clear that these untrue prejudices are widely held.

Therefore the first thing the Labour party should do is counter these untruths. Actually, as detailed in my previous post, 82% of parliamentary Labour MPs are state educated (with 53% of Labour MPs having been to comprehensives), while 59% of Tory MPs are public school educated. So a potential poster to publicise this could say something like

93% of Britain is state educated.
82% of Labour MPs are state educated.
7% of Britain went to public school
59% of Tory MPs are public school educated.
Labour reflects Britain. The Tories do not.

Another poster could say "This is the first government in history to be dominated by state-educated people. This is the first government for x hundred years to deliver 11 years of continuous growth. This is not a coincidence". Hopefully by the next election, this will be 13 years of growth.

Cabinet ministers such as David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Jacqui Smith, Yvette Cooper, Hazel Blears, Alan Johnson, John Denham, Hillary Benn and others should be telling people how proud they are to have been educated under the state system. Alan Johnson is the only one who has successfully got his background across. The rest need to raise their profiles.

Finally, people were prepared to give Timpson a pass because his family are manufacturers (there is an understanding that you don't succeed in business without effort no matter how exalted your background is). People were prepared to give Boris Johnson a pass because he is descended from a Turkish refugee (and claimed that his great-grandmother was a slave) - the conclusion of the public was he was a pretendy toff not the real thing. But they are less willing to give a pass to those who are of real inherited priviledge (hence the constant irritation with the antics of the House of Windsor, excepting the Queen). Therefore we should be very selective where we use the toff label.

The main person in the conservative party who is vulnerable is David Cameron himself. He is descended from James I, via Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, and got his first job because someone from the palace put in a word for him. And then he married the daughter of a baron. He messed up at On Digital (it went bust because of lack of subscribers, despite Cameron being hired as PR person to get punters to sign up). But never mind, that old boys network the Conservative party found him a safe seat with attendant income. And then he pretends to be an ordinary bloke.

Incidently, the link between Cameron and the mad bad Henry VIII is especially interesting as there is a family/genetic resemblance. Take a look at these picture - the eyes and the shape of the face are the same. I wonder what else he has inherited.


Anonymous said...

I read your spirited defence of Labour in the comments of that article and thought "damn, why didn't I put these stats together. Better yet, why hasn't the Labour Party?"

Then I happened along here to see that you've posted about it too (and having only found your blog yesterday this also confirmed that you're one and the same person).

Hats off to you then. If only we could fill the comments sections of every newspaper with well-researched rebuttals, we'd be half way to a fourth term.

The best I can do by way of reward (and let's face it, it's a really small reward) is to use your post as an example of good practice in a test editorial. One day an editorial might be worth something, but for now please accept it as kudos!

Anonymous said...

We really don't need any preaching from Jonathan Freedland and the Guardian,as revealed on Guido's blog there doesn't seem to be anyone on their editorial staff that hasn't been public school educated.
The clear Labour message from C&N is wev'e got nothing to say to you so we will play the man not the ball.
First this nonesense fails with Boris now Timpson when will these fools learn?
If Labour had a campaign manager that wasn't trying to fight the Glaswegian class wars of the 50's & 60's it would be a good first step.

snowflake5 said...

Labour matters, thanks for the kind words. I've popped a link to your new site on my sidebar. Good luck with the venture

Anonymous said...

Snowflake5, that's very kind of you. I don't think that the site proper will be ready for real until after the Summer recess, but it can't hurt being read before then.

Straight after I wrote my editorial, I checked the press and discovered that Matthew Paris and some bloke on the Independent (I think) had written similar sentiments.

I have taken a leaf out of your book today too and written a comment on The Guardian blog. Your stats of yesterday are pretty damning and should be reproduced as widely and as often as possible.

Anonymous said...

But being a toff is about privilege not just about where you went to school. In this election, the privileged candidate was not the Tory but Labour's hereditary candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody. She was selected because she was the daughter of the deceased MP. She was selected because of who she is, who she knows and not how good she is. This is why the campaign is so downright stupid.

Political Umpire said...

But Britain also includes an ever increasing amount of criminals, yobs, hoodies and bankrupts - should the parties be trying to reflect any of that?

I think what the election results show is that the old fashioned obsessions of class and state/public education matter a good deal less nowadays. I very much doubt that Boris Johnson's election was due in any large part to his Turkish ancestry.

snowflake5 said...

Political Umpire - the number of yobs is the same as it always was. It's just people now have 24hr news to make them think that some yob behaviour on the other side of the country is about to manifest itself on their street!

As for Boris Johnson's ancestry - if it had no effect, why did he make so much of it/ First about his grandfather's origins. Then his great-grandmother's origins. Towards the end of the campaign we were even being fed details of his wife's ancestry. Whereas the origins of Ken Livingstone's girlfriend didn't feature at all (quite properly as she wasn't on the ballot).

Boris was banging on about his ethnic roots and connections only because he wanted to seem less "toffy". No other reason to bring it up.

Political Umpire said...

"the number of yobs is the same as it always was."

Disagree, but it wasn't the point I was making. The point is saying that Labour "reflects" Britain because of the more similar proportion of public/state school attendees is a bit simplistic to say the least.

Boris was always being called a toff, hence the points he would wheel out about his ancestry in response. It was more journalistic fare, I doubt it affected his chances much either way. Any more than his previously infamous sex life, which I suspect only didn't become an issue because Ken's record was rather more prolific.