How to keep up with the Letwins

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In this anti-elitist age, snobbery seems ridiculously outmoded. But, argues John Walsh, there's an awful lot of it about ...

Like a duchess unwarily revealing her pants to the world's gaze, Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister, reportedly let slip a tiny flash of bigotry. He was talking to Boris Johnson about whether there should be more airports when he allegedly said: "We don't want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays."

Instantly, he revealed himself as a ridiculously old-fashioned snob – the kind who assumes that Northerners are whippet-owning paupers, that the poor should be persuaded to stay in their place, and that cheap holidays are less acceptable than expensive ones in Letwina, or wherever the minister goes in August.

The besetting sin of snobbery is that it reduces people, places, things and behaviour to one dimension, which can be despised without further thought (Kate Moss – common; Birmingham – ghastly; Saturday TV – vulgar; brown shoes worn in town – not done.) With luck they will live, and converse, with other snobs who agree with their views, so they can share conspiratorial shrieks about Kate Middleton's family background or Osborne & Little wallpaper. Sometimes, though, they'll misjudge their audience (to be fair, Letwin was speaking to a fellow Old Etonian) and the cat will be out of the bag.

It's hard to like a snob. It's difficult to warm to somebody who thinks they're better than most of their fellow men, and who marks people down for their perceived shortcomings of possession of place. When Brian Howard (the model for Anthony Blanche in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited) was arrested in the 1920s, he was asked by a policeman where he lived. "I live in Mayfair," he said. "I expect you live in some dreary suburb." It's not just the rudeness of this reply that grates, it's the stupidity – as if a British cop would feel crushed by Howard's popinjay condescension.

It hurls us back to a time when snobbery was ingrained in supposedly enlightened society, when well-born and well-educated people started to worry that nobodies from Nowheresville would, as a result of the 1870 Butler Education Bill, start to give themselves airs, read books, think thoughts, and seize the reins of power. Nigel Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West coined the term "the bedint" in their letters to each other before the war, to mean the benighted, the tasteless, vulgar and hopelessly bourgeois. Now they can seem to us slightly pathetic figures, forever squirming with distaste, constantly on the qui vive for signs of vulgarity blowing in on the modern breeze.

We have, of course, moved on from those days – not quite out of political correctness, but because casual bigotry now sounds so old, so desperately grey-beard. Snobbery, however, is proving harder to eradicate. We may not pour scorn on each other because of where you went to school but we're still capable, I fear, of specialist snobbery. Dear, dear, are you still drinking Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc when the rest of the world has switched to French Viognier? You're not really thinking of holidaying in Ibiza, are you? Or starting a dinner with mozzarella when we've all discovered burrata?

Pitching ourselves as superior to our neighbours is, I'm afraid, a human trait that's here to stay. It's hard-wired inside the human ego to test itself against Mr and Mrs Perfect next door, and somehow find them wanting. But if we must indulge in it, it's better we do so through the medium of technology-possession, than through clinging to fatuous rules about napkin-folding or moth-eaten assumptions about northerners and package tours. The latter just show people, like Mr Letwin, in their true light – not just as snobs but as antediluvian bores.

Oliver Letwin

Reportedly told London Mayor Boris Johnson he did not want "more families in Sheffield able to afford cheap holidays".

Simon Heffer

Telegraph columnist in memo to staff: "Our readers tend to eat Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner; this is not the Daily Star. Somebody actually allowed a piece of copy through this week with the adjective 'posh' in it (it was not a reference to Mrs Beckham, and nor was it being used satirically). It was lucky this was spotted and removed before a nasty accident occurred. I repeat: we are not the Daily Star."

Antony Steen

"I have done nothing criminal. Do you know what it's all about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house, some people say it looks like Balmoral... but it's a merchant's house of the 19th century. It's not particularly attractive, it just does me nicely."

Nicholas Soames

"Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni, and would you ask my friend what he's having?" he would regularly ask of John Prescott, a working-class former ship steward.

Lady Fellowes

"I hope I would never judge somebody because they folded their napkin after dinner," said the wife of the recently ennobled Downton Abbey writer Lord Fellowes. "But I'd never pretend I didn't notice. Isn't that awful? Sometimes, I'm ashamed to say, I'll go upstairs after we've had a dinner party and I'll say to Julian, 'Did you see Cybilla tipping her soup towards her?'"

David Starkey

On, of all people, Her Majesty the Queen: "Nobody with two brain cells would dream of reading all the Christmas broadcasts. Her frames of reference to the monarchy, despite this 1,500-year history, are entirely her father and grandfather. It's this absence of any kind of – to be blunt – serious education." On showing her round an exhibition on the life of Elizabeth I, that he had curated, he said: "It was 'Philip!' Clop clop clop clop. 'Isn't this mine?' Which indeed it is. And that was basically her response. She knew her own possessions. She was like a housewife who'd been left them."

Sir Michael Winner

"The north is not a place I frequently go to, it is an alien country, it is another land, but it is beautiful. The people are very nice but they provide food that is absolutely pathetic and they are incapable of cooking. So where I am going does not totally thrill me."

Stephen Bayley

Telegraph art critic on David Miliband's painting. "It is the sort of thing you can find arriving in Ford Transits at the dreadful Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park. I am afraid affordability is rarely a good test of quality."

V.S. Naipaul

"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

Sir Nicholas Winterton

"If I was in standard class I would not do work because people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction. They are a totally different type of people."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own