Why are we always surprised when the upper classes break the law?

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The Independent Online

One of the most certain proofs that the class system in Britain is alive and well is the way in which the press so regularly publishes with breathless surprise the news that a criminal has been prosecuted, despite being educated at private school. Such prosecutions happen pretty regularly actually, and would happen even more often if the crime clear-up rate in this country wasn't so appalling.

One of the most certain proofs that the class system in Britain is alive and well is the way in which the press so regularly publishes with breathless surprise the news that a criminal has been prosecuted, despite being educated at private school. Such prosecutions happen pretty regularly actually, and would happen even more often if the crime clear-up rate in this country wasn't so appalling.

But, nevertheless, they are still, on each occasion, reported with sky-has-fallen-in incredulity. Just this once, the line goes every time, the natural order has been utterly confounded, and a young creature taught morality properly has failed to learn his lessons.

This week we were regaled with the astonishing news that posh people sell, buy and take drugs. This rending of the national innocence was followed by yet more taboo busting. Apparently, the people buying these drugs included City workers, celebrities and pop musicians. One can only assume, from the amazement with which such revelations are greeted, that the teaching of memory skills must be appalling in both the public and the private sectors.

This time around, it is the turn of two young men called Julian de Vere Whiteway-Wilkinson and James Long to be tutted over as if they were moral anomalies. The policeman credited with busting them as multi-million-pound drug dealers had this to say: "For white-collar, public schoolboys to get involved in drugs at such a high level is quite extraordinary."

What is quite extraordinary is that even a police chief is so full of complacent snobbery that he will say such a thing in public. The fact that he doesn't expect such people to be involved with drug dealing speaks eloquently of the people he clearly does expect to be involved with drug dealing. Maybe the reason why posh drug dealers are so seldom caught might even be because police officers would never dream of being uppity enough to suspect them.

Yet, these one-off instances of privileged children going "off the rails" crop up all the time. When a lad a while back nicked a credit card from his parents and travelled to Barbados, the case was treated with astonishment because he was from Rugby. But in fact, this sort of behaviour is pretty much unheard of at every school in Britain with the single exception of Rugby.

When Matthew MacDonald was prosecuted at the May Day riots of 2000 for smashing up a McDonald's, the nation gasped at the revelation that he was attending Eton, even though it's well known that anti-globalisation protesters are more often than not drawn from the middle classes. He's at Cambridge now, although he has been suspended for five terms and fined £1,000 after taking over a restaurant being renovated by a hard-working chap educated at a comprehensive and trashing it with some of his Cambridge chums.

This stuff trickles through the media day after day. And that's before one starts listing the dear old lags that Britons so love to take to their hearts after they've done their time. Jonathan Aitken, Darius Guppy and Lord Brocket all committed serious crimes and emerged from their prison sentences burnished with folk-heroism. Well-connected Anthony Blunt managed to get away with being a double agent until the day he died. Ernest Saunders hardly dragged himself up from the gutter to become a con-man. Frankly, in some respects, public school is an asset to the criminally minded.

The mother of Matthew MacDonald's girlfriend, not herself from a privileged background, says it all in her efforts to defend her daughter's high-society lover. "With Matt the school has not only given him a good education, it has given him sure-footedness in social situations." That "sure-footedness" in all the cases cited above was an invaluable asset to those committing crimes. It's proved an invaluable asset to many more when it comes to getting away with it.

Despite all the evidence, the faith of the English in the arcadian perfection of the public school system is unshakeable.

Spencer is a sad reminder of an awful truth

Meanwhile, the best friend of Darius Guppy, Earl Spencer, continues with his own lifelong struggle to rid Britain of its infantile faith in the moral perfection of the upper classes. Lord Spencer famously refused to lend a cottage on the family estate to his sister Diana, Princess of Wales, after her marriage had ended, even though he was able to find one for Mr Guppy after he'd got out of prison.

Also famously, he lost no time in burying her on a man-made lake in the grounds of Althorp (and not in the family crypt), then siting a temple-style museum near the grave which charged a tenner a go to get in and see such wonders as Diana's old school uniform.

Most famously of all, he delivered an oration at Diana's funeral slagging off the father of his nephews, and promising that he, their "blood family", would look after them properly. Then getting straight on to a plane back to South Africa, and hardly ever seeing them again. Now, predictably, as the hysteria around the death of his sister subsides, Earl Spencer is shutting down his tacky museum, and sending it off on tour round the US, where it might start earning a buck. The spectacle of it all is ghastly.

Less predictably though, I feel desperately sorry for this awful chump of a man. We all accept that Diana was a needy, messed-up, neurotic and flawed individual, and excuse it, in part at least, because of her ghastly background and her warring family.

But when we see her poor brother's grandstanding attempts at displaying love in public, and his failure to deliver similar love in private, we are much less sympathetic. But actually, the pair of them are simply sad reminders that awful childhoods usually make awful adults, whatever sector you happen to be educated in.

¿ It's a sort of modern miracle really, isn't it? A couple of weeks ago, we learned that Wayne Rooney and Coleen McLoughlin were the new Posh and Becks. Now, we have pictures of them in the tabloids, with Wayne showing off his new tattoo and Coleen tripping over her carrier bags as she shops for designer clothes.

Sometimes the sheer narrow banality of modern popular culture seems utterly awesome, totally indefatigable. There has got to be more to this couple than the thin stream of vacuity that is being pumped out at the moment. And if there isn't, then there's all the more reason to leave them alone.

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