Dominic Lawson: Freud knew what motivated the privileged class warriors

Any attempts by Labour to paint Cameron as 'out of touch' because of Eton are doomed


Imagine this scene. The FA Cup Final is at a critical moment: with the game at 0-0 a player is bearing down on goal with every chance of scoring... when a figure in top hat and tails comes charging on the pitch and knocks the striker off the ball. The match is ruined (or so claims the side shorn of its winning chance). Yet the man responsible says his protest was justified.

He points out that he had been a very promising football player at prep school and at Eton, but that his path to professional success had been blighted by class prejudice: people like him were ridiculed, made to feel unwelcome in the game. Look, he said – when interviewed after his release from police custody – at the raw statistics. There are 20 Premier League clubs with squads averaging 40 players each. Yet how many of those 800 players were privately educated? Yes, we all know about Frank Lampard (Brentwood School); but then who? If there were a proportionate amount of Premier League players from the private sector, then there should be over 50 of them: and look at the amount of money those players earn – their weekly pay-packets make bankers look under-remunerated, it's just so unfair ... and so he went moaning on.

Such a class warrior would rightly attract derision – almost as much as the privately-educated Australian, Trenton Oldfield, whose disruption of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race could possibly have stemmed from the fact that though a keen rower in his academic days, he never got the chance to row in the annual varsity race on the Thames. As he pointed out with infallible logic, taking part in the race is barred to anyone not studying at either Oxford or Cambridge. Poor, underestimated Trenton only made it to the London School of Economics. So unfair! Though to judge from the spelling mistakes and prose style of his manifesto – with its references to the "transnational-corpo-aristocratic ruling class (invisible)" – he cannot have been among the brightest of the LSE's intake, at that.

There is nothing extraordinary in the fact that this semi-submersible class warrior himself comes from an affluent background (his parents, now divorced, can each afford homes in Sydney's most desirable areas). The history of communist revolutions is the history of middle-class intellectuals motivated not so much by love of their fellow workers ("by hand or by brain"), but hatred of their own background – or those they conveniently perceive as just above them. This can be seen with comical clarity in Oldfield's call to London's taxi-drivers to steal from their axiomatically rich customers, by taking them on the longest possible detours, or "if you clean the bathroom of a right wing professor ... never put loo paper in their bathroom" (do you think, perhaps, the author's degree from LSE was not quite the one he had hoped for?).

Of course, it would be trite to dismiss all privately-educated student revolutionaries as merely jealous third-rate intellectuals who were never up to the sort of glittering prizes achieved by ...oh, I don't know, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. There is something more going on, which Sigmund Freud memorably described in Civilisation and Its Discontents as "the narcissism of minor differences". He invented this term to explain the feuding between closely-related peoples: "like the Spaniards and the Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and the South Germans, the English and the Scots, and so on." Freud's point was that the feuds were necessary for such people to feel superior to their immediate neighbour, although the outsider would scratch his head to discern any real difference at all.

Similarly, Trenton Oldfield's claims to be radically different from the students representing Oxford and Cambridge in the sport he once loved, would be seen as meaningless –if not preposterous – by the countless millions for whom the LSE is as remote from their own lives as those more ancient seats of learning. This, in part, is what dooms to irrelevance any attempt by the middle-class figures who now dominate the Labour party to paint Cameron as "out of touch" just because of his education at Eton: for the overwhelming majority of the British people, the Oxford-educated Eds Miliband and Balls will seem as remote from their lives. I suspect that the average voter – not that there is such a person, exactly – would see all Westminster politicians as a kind of political class apart, something George Galloway has recently exploited with characteristic brio.

This fact was made clear, in a different way, at an earlier by-election in Crewe and Nantwich four years ago. The Labour Party sent activists dressed up in Eton top hat and tails to stalk the Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, whose family are the wealthy founder-owners of the Timpson shoe-repair and key-cutting business. This attempt to foment old-style class war failed spectacularly, not least because the Labour candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody, was the third generation of Labour establishment politicians.

A similar misjudgement was evident in the campaign by a number of Guardian columnists against Boris Johnson in his first London mayoral campaign against Ken Livingstone. It was not Johnson's politics which most offended these august members of the left-wing commentariat but the fact that he had once been a member of the socially pretentious Bullingdon Club, and that he continues to talk like a character out of a PG Wodehouse novel ("Cripes!" etc).

Yet in ultra-metropolitan, socially diverse, multi-cultural London, this seemed hardly to matter to the voters at all: if anything they rather admired Johnson's willingness to use his knowledge of Ancient Rome as a source of metaphor and political argument. The point was that these columnists were themselves privately educated – and Boris Johnson is exactly the sort of person they would have most wanted to distinguish themselves from at university. This was Freud's narcissism of minor differences in full force-and as usual, the vast majority of people outside this narrow social loop couldn't see what all the fuss was about, and certainly wouldn't have thought it had any relevance to their own day-to-day concerns.

The same applies to Trenton Oldfield's solipsistic excursion on the Thames. On the other hand, it at least helped to expose the intellectual shoddiness of a certain brand of eternal student politics: so he's done something useful, despite himself.

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