Andrew Martin: What does Cameron know of the need for sharp elbows?

Why do people pretend to be middle class when they're not, and vice versa
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The Prime Minister fretted last week that public services such as Sure Start were unduly benefiting the "sharp-elbowed middle classes – like me and my wife". Well, he had to seek to identify himself with the social group he criticised, otherwise the Daily Mail would have been down on him like a ton of bricks. In the event, the Mail only came down on him like about half a ton of bricks.

To the class-conscious among us, his remark was irritating in numerous ways. First, it was sociologically incorrect. Cameron is a multi-millionaire, and somehow related to the Queen. His wife likes to say that she "grew up outside Scunthorpe", and that indeed is where her father's 300 acres, and his mansion, Normanby Hall, are located. Second, the remark was incredibly arch, because Cameron knows that we know he's not really middle class (70 per cent identified him as "upper class" in a recent YouGov survey ). Third, his remark displayed the sort of iconoclasm manifested only by the swaggeringly confident, in that he was identifying himself as part of the social class that dare not speak its name.

Only a person of aristocratic confidence would broach the C-word, anyway. It makes the public jumpy, and not for nothing is it said – among the middle classes – that you should not talk about class at a dinner party, because it's bad for the digestion. It is taken to be the number one British bugbear, a sign of our decrepitude as a nation, which is why recent prime ministers have all implied they'd got rid of it. The fact that we now have an Old Etonian prime minister, and a parliament 40 per cent of whose members were privately educated (as against 7 per cent of the general population) is either proof that they succeeded or proof that they failed, and I know which I think.

Surveys of British class attitudes show up strange, neurotic attitudes. A remarkable number of people still identify themselves as working class (53 per cent in a survey of 2006), despite the decline of such working- class identifiers as factory jobs. This is readily explicable if you consider all those social groups for whom the label "middle class" – especially of the sharp-elbowed sort – would be problematic. In fact, we could say that the primary characteristic of the otherwise nebulous and sprawling British middle classes is self-disgust.

In the first place, a declaration of middle-classness is incompatible with any liberal or left belief. As a member of the Labour Party, I am in almost daily receipt of emails from the leadership candidates. Andy Burnham writes, "Dear Andrew... I come from an ordinary family..." Made suspicious by this – ordinary people do not ordinarily describe themselves as ordinary – I looked him up on Wikipedia. Mmm... Burnham's father was a telephone engineer. That could mean anything. Technically, I dare say the head of BT is a telephone engineer. His mother? She was a receptionist and that can't mean anything. Burnham will be delighted to learn that I concede his prolishness.

Ed Balls weighs in with "Dear Andrew... My grandfather, a lorry driver, died from cancer when my father was only 10..." An excellent start, on the face of it, and it enables Ed to write that his father therefore came from "a widowed family in a working-class community in Norwich". But where did you come from, Ed, because, after all, you are the one standing for leader of the Labour Party?

Well, what with the stress of the campaign, the poor chap had obviously forgotten that his dad was a professor of zoology, and that he, Ed, attended a leading private school before going on to Oxford and Harvard.

Now what about the youth of today? Would they be happy to call themselves middle-class? I doubt it, because it implies a cosseted, striving mentality, incompatible with the idea of cool perpetuated by commercialised youth culture. The British public schoolboy wears his trousers low in emulation of black men in the US, who in turn adopted the style to identify with convicts, who have their belts removed on being admitted to prison. My youngest son is a member of the class just mentioned (and I don't mean that he is black, or a convict), and when I complain about this habit of his, he says, "I suppose you want me to have my waistband somewhere up around my nipples, like you." I consider it beneath my dignity to correct this hyperbole, and merely point out that I would prefer it if he covered his buttocks.

If you're an intellectual, you would not want to claim middle classness, because it implies complacency and lack of rigour. A couple of months ago, the presenter of a Radio 3 arts programme rubbished Richmal Crompton's William books, which I'd told him I liked, by briskly saying, as he replaced his fountain pen in the inside pocket of his well-cut suit, "They're just middle class, aren't they?"

If you're from the north of England, you wouldn't want to say you were middle class, because it suggests southern-ness, and sharp elbows suggest individual endeavour rather than the collective self-help traditionally favoured in the north. It would be particularly hard for a northern man to admit being middle class, because that would imply a decadent taste for physical ease. And a proper man goes in with his fists, not his sharp elbows.

I remember my father, a Yorkshireman, taking me to York races in the early 1980s. "The good thing about the races," he said, "is that there are no middle-class people here – it's both ends of the spectrum but not the middle." What he meant, I suppose, was that everyone was drunk, whether on beer or champagne. As he commended his point to me, expatiating on the petty jealousies and proprieties of the middle classes, I wondered where he, as a senior clerk on British Rail, thought that he fitted in: yob or nob?

But what about women? My observation is that middle-class mothers do not so much mind being called middle class, or even "sharp-elbowed", because maternity always trumps inverted snobbery. For example, Diane Abbott, whose entire shtick is that she is not conventionally middle class, sent her son to a private school in the full knowledge that she would never live it down politically. Certainly, in my own marriage, it is my wife who has the sharpest elbows, and doesn't mind who knows it. She it was who, a couple of years ago, discovered that the NHS would soon stop funding certain types of orthodontry, and this was relevant because our sons needed to have braces fitted. In the week-long window that remained, she indulged in a flurry of form-filling and letter-writing that I found rather distasteful. Every so often she'd give me a document to sign, and I'd reluctantly scrawl my name while saying something like, "If you ask me, wonky teeth add character to a child's face," but she secured the treatment, and by her industry – and her elbows – saved us several thousand pounds.

It was my wife who formulated the plan whereby our children found places at a very good Church of England primary school. The main plank was church attendance and, since she is Jewish, she sent me. From my pew, I observed that the very sharpest of the sharp-elbowed would sneak out of the service early, once the presence of their children had been noted by the vicar's assistants, and I could not in conscience do that, so I sat through the services for several years and ended up being confirmed.

I don't like to see myself as grasping or pushy, but I seldom remain mute when, for example, the queue in the post office seems to have stopped moving. I hear myself saying to non-middle-class strangers, "Don't you think you should have wrapped the parcel before trying to post it?" or "Would you mind cutting out the small talk and getting on with it?"

I hate myself afterwards, but sharp elbows, whether deployed by women or men, are going to be ever more necessary, given the economic climate and the competitiveness it engenders. Unable to afford private education, and thwarted in your ambition to get into the good local state school? Appeal against the decision, and get a lawyer to speak for you at the hearing. That graduate daughter (an aspirant to the media) still unemployed? Start contacting everyone you've ever met who works in that field, beginning with the ones you liked (if any) but not neglecting to fawn over the ones you despised as well. As you knock out the emails, I recommend a bottle of something suitably cheap by way of anaesthetic.

For Cameron to bring flippancy, or irony, disingenuousness or whatever it was that prompted him to pretend he was down there in the bear pit with us, alternating constantly between striking blows and regretting having done so – it really was too cruel.