The View From Here: The title of professor promoted me to a different league. I was poorer, yet infinitely more respectable

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Ever since reading Anthony Sampson's New Anatomy of Britain, which I won as a school prize more than 30 years ago, I have been fascinated by Whitehall's shadow army, the "Great and the Good". As a journalist I set out to trail them. I even wrote about them in a Policy Studies Institute pamphlet just as Mrs Thatcher was attempting to banish them as she scoured the corridors of Whitehall for consensualists, Keynesians and Beveridgites.

But in hunting this particular brand of establishmentarians, I learnt one big thing - that in Britain status trumps all. It dwarfs class, to which it is partially but by no means wholly related. Even in post-Thatcher Britain, money on its own is nowhere. Status is king.

Appreciating this intellectually is one thing. Experiencing it for oneself is quite another. Only when I became a professor four years ago did the potency of the British status obsession strike me with its full force. The shock was intensified as I had not expected it. Because for years I had thought the English (in contrast to the Scots and Welsh) rather disdained the professional version of status, treating the scholarly calling as some tweedy, rather idle irrelevance - as the kind of "sleeping bag" profession that, Philip Larkin once said, the English like to keep in reserve for those members of the educated middle class who don't want to work.

No less a figure than Lord Hailsham, I suspect, was responsible for underscoring this impression. Sitting next to the former Secretary of State for Education more than 20 years ago at one of Sir John Hackett's Greek plays at King's College, London, I (as the young man from The Times Higher Education Supplement's "gossip" column) noticed him chortling his way through Aristophanes' The Frogs with its Greek text perched on his ample lap. "You keep up with your scholarship, then?" I inquired with a combination of feebleness and servility. "Oh yes," he said. "Only in England is it an insult to be called a clever person and I am a very clever person indeed!" At which the stout and ennobled party collapsed into that protracted wheezy giggle that is his trademark.

I would not make such claims for myself, but I am certain now that I was wrong about joining a mildly disdained intellectual underclass. Once I did, the signs of enhanced status were swiftly apparent. The BBC Radio Analysis programme from whence I came was a hugely admired strand of public service broadcasting. The Times, way back in the days when I was its Whitehall correspondent, was very much the Brigade of Guards of the written end of the media trade.

But the title of professor - and in History to boot - promoted me to a different league. I was definitely poorer, yet infinitely more respectable. It wasn't just the television interviewers - who realised that the Mile End Road was just within reach when a late-breaking story was needed for the early evening news and a tweed-clad talking head required for 30 seconds of explication - that reflected this status jump. Civil Service permanent secretaries even began to defer, though, mercifully, in a slightly mocking manner.

There is one senior civil servant-turned-banker who has known me for years, who still bursts out laughing when he sees the title Professor next to my name on his TV screen. And Michael White of The Guardian, my old friend and Westminster room-mate during my brief spell as a political correspondent, as candid as ever, says the media ring me up because of "your showbiz side as opposed to your mandarin side".

But perhaps the most unintentionally cutting observation on my ambivalent though risen status belongs to a senior figure on the Whitehall information side. At a party she said amiably: "You're a professor now. I can talk to you. It takes away the sting." Oh dear, I never craved quite that degree of respectability. Status has come at a pricen

The writer is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London. His new book, `Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain', is published by Gollancz, price pounds 20.

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