Who's the real snob, Mr Speaker?

'Not many people are willing to declare their unvarnished snobbery, but by the same token inverted snobbery is as despised'
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The Independent Online

Poor Michael Martin. There he is, fulminating from the heart of the establishment about its conspiracy against him, like a bear in a big top demanding the right to join the circus. But Mr Speaker – as he prefers to be styled nowadays – does not in the least see how absurdly contradictory his position is. This, in itself, is a large part of the reason why he finds himself in such trouble.

It must seem frustrating and cruel to him that the resort to his long-standing defence has garnered Mr Speaker nothing except "more-in-sorrow-than-anger" conclusions about chips and shoulders. But actually, he really ought to have seen those coming. If the forces of snobbery really are out to get Mr Speaker, then the man himself is proving to be their most stalwart ally.

Only a saint would refrain from responding to Mr Speaker's latest accusations without a raised eyebrow. Mr Speaker really is beginning to look a little obsessed. This is the chappie, after all, who found himself at the centre of another class conflict when he sacked his secretary for being "too posh".

The secretary in question, 38-year-old Charlotte Every, had called Mr Speaker Mr Martin more times than he could tolerate, and in an insufferably plummy voice too. The Sloaney type was not deferential enough towards the self-styled hammer of the snobs and received her marching orders. The snobs, no doubt, marked Mr Speaker's card indelibly at that precise moment.

And, frankly, you can see their point. Why should Mr Speaker reserve the right to judge people on their backgrounds and accents, while at the same time demanding that he himself should never be judged in this manner? Not many people are willing to declare their unvarnished snobbery any more, but by the same token inverted snobbery is coming to be despised and distrusted every bit as much.

Mr Speaker has failed to notice that in the subtle terrain of the 21st-century class war, a working-class hero is still something to be. But only if the working-class heroism is concerned with transcending as well as mythologising background. Mr Speaker does too much of the latter for the modern taste, and not enough of the former.

Small beginnings might be character-forming, but that one was keen to get away is very often looked upon as confirmation that the requisite strength of character existed anyway.

Under such rules of engagement, it is vital that we should all know that Mr Speaker was once a steelworking member of the lower Scottish orders. But it is vital, too, that this should be seen as something Mr Speaker has achieved some distance from over the years, and no longer defines himself as being.

A modest background hugely burnishes success in Britain nowadays, just as it does in America. A modest background continually thrust to the foreground, however, is much less attractive. It is, in fact, immodest. Going on and on about how you've made it from nothing is, in these days of meritocracy, as boastful as you can get. This, essentially, is how the class battle lines have been redrawn.

It is not hard to see how this happened. Humble beginnings, over recent decades, have been virtually defined by the daring escape from them. The most considerable people, it is now pretty much assumed, are those who made it from the least promising starts.

Nowadays, however, it's easier to locate an elevated, admired, working-class hero than it is to find an actual member of the working class. The working class has become a conceptual social grouping, the existence of which is honoured in the breach rather than the observance. As a demographic group it barely exists any longer – which is why polls always report that fewer and fewer people define themselves in that way.

And nobody gets any kudos from being happy with their lot, living an ordinary life that confounds no great expectations. There is no real merit in coping manfully with a difficult hand any more, when the idea is to keep playing till the hand is improved.

Indeed, the idea that the ranks of the less privileged might still be dominated by respectable types has all but faded away. Instead, theoretically at least, there is the meritocracy, which embraces all of the former working class who might be interested in getting on, and the underclass, which, logic dictates, contains all those who cannot be judged on merit, and are therefore considered incapable of anything but the most crude strategies for survival.

And the middle and upper classes? Surely they're in the meritocracy too? Not really. They reserve the right to continue to load the dice of life with privilege, now perhaps more than ever, while at the same time complaining more loudly than ever about the financial burden of doing so.

Their justification for living lives more and more insulated from anyone who isn't just like them is that, outside their carefully constructed edifices, the underclass prowl. Usually, though, it's just the meritocracy prowling, not allowing themselves to stop and think for too long about how unfairly the system still seems to be stacked, because that sort of negative thinking can only lead straight to the underclass.

And that's the most horrible thing, the way that meritocracy runs not just on rewarding those who get to the top, but on punishing those who slide too near the bottom. In that respect, Mr Speaker's ideas about class war are hopelessly outmoded. He may feel punished by his background, but actually that attitude simply speaks volumes about how his instinct is for posture more than politics.

There are plenty of ex-steelworkers being punished for their backgrounds this very moment. But they are being punished with minimum wages, or swingeing state pensions, or postcode-driven poor public services. The people who mock Mr Speaker by calling him Gorbals Mick are indeed a bunch of snobs, and are no doubt delighted that Mr Speaker seems so eager to confirm their prejudices. But that he rises to it marks him out as an idiot.

Mr Speaker does not seem at all to understand that the world and the working class have changed hugely since he was on the factory floor. (Even thought Westminster is clearly resisting the change.) He doesn't understand either that society has become both more meritocratic and more ruthless.

Instead, he seems bent on judging a dangerous situation (for himself) by a set of values that will leave him undefended and bound to lose. Mr Speaker, unfortunately, is too wrapped up in considering himself a very big man now to really be big and laugh at his critics.

Mr Speaker, in fact, has gone native. When Betty Boothroyd ventured to make a couple of small comments about Mr Speaker's "quirky" interpretation of his role in the Commons, Mr Speaker retaliated by letting it be known that the ex-tiller girl had left the Speaker's Palace of Westminster apartments in an awful state. The apartments had to be cleaned out before Mr and Mrs Martin could move in.

It is apparently testament to the shocking state of the flat that Mr Martin's wife had to resort to cleaning the kitchen floor herself. There, there. What a pair of snobs the Martins come across as being.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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