Our PM is too posh to push for the Union with Scotland – and knows it

David Cameron may agree that Scotland's No campaign doesn't need help from a Tory toff. But what exactly is this quality that arouses such strong reactions?

Share

By chance, one of last week's most significant political stories came bearing an equally significant sociological garnish. The political story was the Prime Minister's reluctance to campaign against Scottish independence, and the sociological top-dressing could be found in the reason he gave for not debating the issue with the SNP leader Alex Salmond.

Responding to a claim made by Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow South West, that "the last thing Scots who support the No campaign want to have as their representative is a Tory toff from the Home Counties", Mr Cameron seems more or less to have agreed. At any rate he would only remark that while he was sure many people in Scotland would like to hear his views, "my appeal doesn't stretch to every single part". No doubt about it, from the angle of Clackmannanshire and Wester Ross, Mr Cameron, as the newspapers were quick to confirm, is just too posh.

All this, naturally, raises fascinating questions about how the Prime Minister perceives himself, how we, in our turn, perceive him, and, most important of all, the precise meaning of the word that so often accompanies mention of his name. There is a personal interest, too, in that "posh" was one of the great all-purpose adjectives of my childhood, sometimes used to convey approbation, as in "that's a posh suit/car/pair of gloves", but more often used in bitter disparagement, when it meant "affected", "pretentious" or "lah-di-dah". Its most regular application was in the field of vocal tone, and my father did a ruthlessly accurate impersonation of some "posh" people he had once sat behind at a classical concert, a phonetic reproduction of which would go something like: dahs wan hev wan's years pierced?

I was not immune to these reproaches myself, and got a terrific ticking off for returning from my first term at university with what was described as "a half-crown voice". But to go back to David Cameron, who is unequivocally posh, indisputably the poshest Prime Minister since Sir Alec Douglas-Home 50 years ago, of what does his poshness, his quite incontestable air of poise, superiority and upper-class sangfroid, consist? One should note immediately that "posh", like most other adjectives tethered to the idea of social class, is a relative term. Victoria Beckham, for example, was dubbed "Posh Spice" by the tabloids because her parents possessed a freehold property. Obviously blue blood has its place, and one of the most amusing stories I've heard about the Prime Minister was the degree of social exaltation he was supposed to have displayed on his engagement to Samantha Sheffield. She is a baronet's daughter, you see, and in certain circles this still counts for something.

Money, it scarcely needs saying, has nothing – or almost nothing – to do with it. The earl's granddaughter who survives in a dower house with the family money all gone, the estate sold and the flower-garden dug up for potatoes is a novelist's staple, and no survey of British demographic history over the past century and a half can quite ignore that tiny but influential cadre known as the aristocratic poor. Accent is nearly always a reputable guide, its taint discerned in the desperate attempts made by well-bred Labour MPs to sound as if they had managed to avoid a privileged upbringing. The former foreign secretary Anthony Crosland (Highgate School and Trinity College, Oxford) is supposed to have lamented to one of his advisers, on returning from a radio interview, that he "wished he didn't sound like that" and when asked what he thought he sounded like, replied – my father's term again – "so lah-di-dah".

Education, of course, is an important key to "poshness", and yet, once again, enormous distinctions and qualifications apply. You might assume that attendance at one of our leading public schools was a guarantee of it, but any counter-jumper with a few thousand in the bank can buy a GCSE and so a near-invisible fence rail operates to keep the sheep from the goats.

Eton is a posh school; Harrow, I was always told by non-Harrovians, is not. At university, 30 years ago, the boys from Dulwich College were looked down on as south London barbarians and pursued around the place by imitations of their supposedly cockney argot.

The amateur sociologist, noting that money and education are no guarantee of poshness, and that even an up-market tone can be acquired by way of elocution lessons, might wonder exactly what factors are left. The answer, predictably enough, has to do with intangibles, spiritual caste marks that linger in the air like river fog above the heads of the people who benefit from them. It is not that the posh have fruity, patrician voices, that they went to Eton, are descended from King William IV or are married to Sir Reginald Sheffield's daughter, rather that they are susceptible to tiny twitches on the ancestral thread, barely calculable behavioural assumptions, that eternal question of "how to behave" to which posh antennae are always finely tuned.

One infallible mark of poshness, for example, is the habit of pronouncing one's name with cavalier disregard of its spelling: Powell as "Pole", Seymour as "Seymer", Featherstonehaugh as "Fanshaw". Another is to pronounce fairly ordinary words with peculiar emphasis, like the owner of the flat I once inhabited in Pimlico who informed me that "Fletcher" might call, that is the well-known firm of letting agents "Flatshare". And all this is to ignore the whole Mitford-esque pantomime of swapping "serviette" for "napkin" and the sumptuary prescriptions of the late Earl Beauchamp who decanted his champagne into jugs on the grounds that drinking it from the bottle was middle class.

And at the heart of poshness, my fascinated observation of it insists, lies not birth, breeding and cut-glass vowels, but a much more subtle and demanding requirement: the ability not to show off, draw attention to oneself or appear to require more than the most minimal appreciation of one's talent, a kind of chronic reserve and self-deprecation whose exercise, if taken to extremes, can sometimes look like showing off by default. I was once taking part in a conversazione about the novels of Anthony Powell with the novelist Ferdinand Mount, who is the Prime Minister's cousin. At one stage I ventured what seemed an unexceptionable point about the way in which Powell's characters "declare" themselves, slough off one skin, as it were, and acquire another. "I say" Ferdie tolerantly remarked, "that's awfully clever." It was no good. I had shown off, I was not fit for polite company, and – metaphorically – I slunk away.

On the other hand, there is virtue in all this poshness as well as vice. In fact, all the evidence suggests that the Prime Minister should stop regretting his poshness and use it as a weapon. After all, the patrician values he appears to espouse seem to make him more popular with the electorate – the English electorate, anyway – than upstart proletarians such as Eric Pickles or the middle-class Darwinians who populate the Cabinet's lower reaches. And, what with Pop (Eton Society) and the Oxford Union behind them, posh boys invariably make a decent showing in the debating chamber. In declining to spar with Alex Salmond, Mr Cameron may be missing a trick.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness