Peter York: A whole new chapter in the history of Sloanes

Where does the son of a disgraced MP, the self-styled 'Queen Sloane', fit into new-money Britain? Peter York welcomes the ultimate in social mobility
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I hated writing about Kate Middleton last year. We – my co-author Olivia Stewart-Liberty and I – obviously had to say something about her in our new Sloane Ranger book, but we left it till last. How could you describe the complications of the established Sloane view of her without sounding as if you endorsed what 99 per cent of the population would see as deeply snobbish and silly Old World attitudes?

The real Sloane view – increasingly unspoken – was that it takes at least three generations to get there. One to make the money, one to make the move (down South, across town, whatever) into the Sloane world, and another to make the grade, to become really assimilated.

Kate Middleton's a pretty girl who sounds nice. Neither of us had met her, and it was leg-crossingly difficult to say that some people were fretful about her perfectly ordinary middle-class background – all the "doors to manual" stuff – and her mother's alleged solecisms – breaking Nancy Mitford's ancient U and non-U semantic codes of 1956 by saying "toilet" (in U-speak, lavatory) and chewing gum at Prince William's Sandhurst passing out parade.

It all sounded medieval, Transylvanian and daft as a brush, like Black Rod walking backwards. We didn't want to be identified with that. It's almost as bad having to think about the Conways. Are they Sloane, and if they are what does that tell us about modern Britain?

The Conway brothers have certainly lived a smart life: we've seen it all over the past week. They both went to Harrow, by any lights a major public school, and then to Cambridge (Henry) and Newcastle (Freddie). And again, for crazed students of Sloane form, Newcastle's become v.v. OK over the past decade.

But it was their London high life – their club and party life – that made them so visible and made people ask us whether this was, in any sense, modern Sloanedom at play. And the unspoken subtext to that question was: what about Derek, because he isn't?

The father's actions have meant open season on the family, and particularly in the Tory papers which love this sort of thing. Derek seems to have extracted a fair bit of public money for nest-feathering and children's parties. Both boys were paid well as researchers who'd didn't research. Their mother was well paid as Conway's secretary too (though everyone says she really did the job). And Henry Conway's friend Michel – I'll come to that side of things later – apparently worked for Conway as well.

It's all struck a very deep nerve in the real world. A friend who lives in Conway's constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup feels it's about "them" – Parliamentarians as a whole – who she sees as indulged, self-governing, out of touch and on the take in an archaic word-is-my-bond place – rather than just the Tories.

The Conway story looks bad because it ties Parliament and the Conservatives to a particular growing focus of resentment – the extraordinary growth of Big Money in Big London. The sources of this money – so Show-off and Fuck-off, as in the "Fuck off, I'm Rich" party they said Henry Conway organised – are so City and foreign, they're starting to make Central London look like a strange land, a dominant, resented city state within a country, rather like Manhattan. And with the banking crisis and the credit crunch threatening the real economy, people out there are looking for someone to blame. Big London, with its wealth, arrogance, globalisation and the rest strikes them as a fair scapegoat.

Old Sloanes feel like that too. The Countryside Alliance march was a wall-to-wall Sloane event, of course, where the single-issue cause of hunting was wrapped in a gigantic countryside flag of resentments against London. Townies who priced young locals out of houses in their own villages; the disappearing local shops and bus services.

But Old Sloanes' greatest beef about London is that they're priced out of it, or at least the prime parts they used to assume were theirs. These now belong to the extraordinary new London mix of the seriously rich – American investment bankers, Eurotrash smarties (South Kensington is a major French city now), alarming billionaires from the rising Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) with British City bonus boys bringing up the rear. Big London – and its seriously embarrassing explaining this if you've got cousins in Carlisle – is full of nothing-special houses costing £4m and more, and the majority of them are now bought by those famous "non-doms". More worrying still from where the trad Sloane sits, so increasingly, are the nicer, creamier smart country houses with some shooting or fishing and decent London access.

The old process of social assimilation used to be mainly about English new money – generated in London, the mucky, brassy North or the colonies – buying those houses and restoring them, and doing the three-generation thing, mouldering into the landscape, and the "community", identifying with the place in a familiar way. But the New New money has come so thick, fast and foreign there hasn't been time for all that, and they're not bothered. Global new money has houses everywhere, and serious helicopters, it doesn't aspire to the Miss Marple life of St Mary Mead.

So smart Big London is a focus for old Sloanes' resentments now. They're equivocal and sour grape-y about it. They used to have the freedom of the city and the City used to employ their boys. Now they feel marginalised in all sorts of ways – pushed over the river in London and to the cheaper country counties, competing with meritocrats for the top jobs now often in the gift of Dutchmen or Americans working through global headhunters.

Serious sociologists with a grasp of the figures take all this Sloane whingeing with a massive pinch of salt, of course. They point out the continuing dominance of public school products in attractive jobs and the declining rate of real social mobility in this country – on some measures the lowest in Western Europe. And it hasn't improved at all under New Labour. It's a conundrum for serious clever social policy wonks like Labour's – completely meritocratic – Lord Adonis.

But the Conways, like Kate Middleton's family, have certainly been socially mobile. Derek Conway isn't the Sir Tufton-Bufton knight of the shires you might assume if you met the boys. He comes from the tough North-east – Beacon Hill Boys' School and no university – with a career in North-eastern local politics. He was a very young councillor in Gateshead and then – the big jump under Thatcher – Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham at just 30 in 1983.

It was a classic Thatcherite trajectory from urban council estate to a big house in a nice old town. But did the original meritocratic vision allow for people like Conway taking quite such a dramatic next step, sending the children to such smart, expensive schools (Conway's daughter went to St Mary's, Ascot) and launching them into precisely that bit of Big London life that outsiders think of as Sloane.

From the old Sloane perspective the most Un-Sloane thing about the Conway boys was that visibility. One of the lessons of the old three generation-or-more rule was that by the third generation Sloanes had learnt all those disingenuous low-profile skills of blending in, of never, never saying anything like "I'm rich, fuck off" because it was a dangerous joke. The current Spectator has two big pieces saying the Conway story is a disaster for David Cameron's slender majority – meaning careless talk costs Tory political lives. (The difficult sub-text here you sense, is that you'd never have had this problem with Peter Carrington or Willie Whitelaw.)

The tight Old Sloane world, once a monoculture with such a clear world-view and aesthetic is fragmented now. Clever adaptive Sloanes have morphed into all sorts of new guises, from Notting Hill eco-warriors, and media entrepreneurs to Chavtastic Mockney DJs and film directors. Younger Sloane, especially in London, isn't so predictable or instantly recognisable to the hostile outside view any more.

The Sloane way of gay? I've met "flamboyant" Henry Conway twice. He came across as funny, engaging and very camp in an old-fashioned, Anthony Blanche sort of way. Old Sloane thinking never allowed for gay, in the modern sense, as an identity. Instead the language allowed for buggers – a widespread and totally understandable behaviour found in manly public school men who didn't much care for women and had spent time under canvas or for aristocratic queens. Modern middle-class un-camp Guppies (Gay Yuppies) with civil partnerships who just get on with it in Islington or Chiswick – the increasing reality of the 21st century – simply doesn't compute for Old Sloanes.

Peter York and Olivia Stewart-Liberty's 'Cooler, Faster, More Expensive, the Return of the Sloane Ranger' is published by Atlantic Books, £19.99

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