Old boys, new world: Britain’s upper crust looking more and more crusty

December 4, 2014

Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell leaves his home in London

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 the United Kingdom Independence Party, the new anti-EU group.

Thornberry took a picture on her phone of a modest terraced house covered in English flags – a red cross of St George on a white background – 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 civilization, 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 peoples’ 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 emphasized 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 program to apologize 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” (there’s rarely any 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.


PHOTO: Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell leaves his home in London November 27, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris 


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The French did the right thing with the Royals. Birth rights are meaningless. In fact, a soft sheltered life tends to make even a smart person dumb. Obviously the same thing is happening in the US with the generations of endowed wealth who are below average in intelligence, simply because they have never faced reality. But hey, they own the government and this news paper apparently since all government actions lately have been to suppress the opportunities of people and the press, like Reuter’s keeps putting the wealthy people PR programs out like they are real facts.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

People fighting each other in Great Britain, and putting each other down, is a sign that all is not well. Their stratified and multicultural society is failing. London is a mishmash of buildings that clash with each other, and their society mirrors that. A kind of reverse colonization has occurred, and British identity is going out the window.

The British did not perform well in the latest war in Afghanistan. An American General, in secret documents that were leaked by Manning, said that the British, “were not up to it.” So we see failure at many levels. But the most important level is economic. Printing money is not going to work forever. Once the real economic woes begin one can expect to see Great Britain slide even worse into conflict and weakness.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive


“…a soft sheltered life tends to make even a smart person dumb.” First time I’ve agreed with one of your comments.

Don’t really understand why a wannabee euro-socialist would admit it, though.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

There is no need to pretend to be modest egalitarians. All that is needed is respect for fellow humans. It is not what a persons ancestors earned and amassed, but what an individual today has accomplished that is the mark of a man. Taxation in Britain has taken much assets away from former inheritors of title and privilege and that, for the sake of leveling the field, is good. Take America, for example where ambition, drive, intelligence and personal sacrifice are often the hallmarks of successful persons. Next generations often die away much poorer.

Posted by Margaretville | Report as abusive