Friday 16 May 2008
Joan Bakewell: No wonder the toffs are back with a vengeance
Bling is back and I'm glad to be one of the blingers. My personal favourite among jewellers is Argenta: those people with a stall on many a railway station and rows and rows of neat, trim and cheap earrings. I am a regular patron. It's so handy when you set out in a hurry and forget. Stop off at their stall and for £5 you go away with ears properly dressed for whatever meeting you hope to impress. Back home, they join other Argenta pairs holding their own among swinging ethnics and flashy sparklers from more rarefied retailers. I hope they do a roaring trade in Northampton, recently declared the bling capital of Britain.
Bling is riding high, it seems, with residents of Northampton loaded with £469 of jewellery every day. In Glasgow the sum is £468; in Wrexham £460. London is some way down the list, each of us sporting a mere £286. In fact, the findings are shot through with incongruities. Do these statistics include men, illegal immigrants, residents in Her Majesty's prisons, and old people's care homes? That they probably include engagement rings and good watches makes the statistic less surprising. No shock discovery, then, except that many of us like wearing the stuff. The research was dreamed up by Halifax Home Insurance, no doubt in the hope of getting us jumpy about theft and loss. The Halifax is the bank of choice for the gypsy community, who safeguard their gold by decking their young women. Perhaps the rest of us are doing the same.
The whole giddy story serves to point up just how much appearance matters. Even those with little to spend doll up with chains and beads, fingers full of rings, wrists jangling, even noses and lips twinkling with studs and stones. As a tribe, we are certainly into the business of body decoration and, like all tribes, much given to judging people by how they dress. It relates obliquely to the sudden surge in the talk about toffs that is currently infecting political reporting.
Labour supporters in the Crewe by-election, desperate at the dire Labour standing, are running an "anti-toff" campaign against the Tory candidate who just happens to be heir to the Timpson shoe fortune and lives in a big house. Activists wearing top hats and tails have been stalking him, and greeted David Cameron; flyers have featured top hats too. If they could have hired Bullingdon Club tailcoats I'm sure they would have done. When Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London the same allegations of toffery flew, only to be squashed by the disclosure that his great-grandfather was interior minister of Turkey. Perhaps that doesn't count.
It's all beginning to look a little stupid. But it points up a paradox of current politics. The old war between the working classes and the upper classes, with the workers uniting to resist being exploited by their rich employers, bit the dust when the workers' party turned Tory, and began privatising even more than Mrs Thatcher and devising taxes that hit their own. At the same time, the resurgent Tory party seems to have deserted its flirtation with hard-working middle-class leaders – Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher – and reverted to those of title and breeding. Far too many of the Shadow Cabinet, and now the mayor's office, come from the same school and the same university. Pity Douglas Hurd, whose 1990 bid to be Tory leader was said to have been blighted by his being an old Etonian.
Does any of this matter? In bling terms, it doesn't. The world of film and football celebrity has created its own aristocracy of achievement and fame. It's great to see girls on the street with their peacock pleasure in gaudy dress with as much confidence as their icons from Sex and the City. No one need feel socially inferior any more. Indeed, more and more people are confident of all their many legal entitlements and keen in their pursuit.
When it comes to leadership and judgement, it shouldn't matter any more who has the most wealth, posh homes, titled connections. But when a group of such people of similar background and interests, cluster together within one influential group – in this case the Shadow Cabinet – it does matter. In August 2006 there were 15 old Etonian office-holders on Cameron's front bench. There have been comings and goings since then, but two of the top Tory jobs, leader and London Mayor, are still Etonian-held. Not surprisingly, they have many skills between them. You don't pay £28,000 a year unless you get small classes, excellent teachers, civilised surroundings and values. David Cameron is rightly credited with charm and understanding. But he comes from a tiny elite. As I hope Crewe will tell him, it's time he looked further afield.
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