Peter York: Cameron's not as posh as you think he is

If you live and work in Big London, the smart centre, it's easy to think that everyone you know - everyone 'middle class' - earns £100,000 and deserves it

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If David Cameron is middle class – and what a brilliant remark it was to say, as he did earlier this week at one of his public meetings, that he and his wife were part of the "sharp-elbowed middle classes" – who exactly does he think the upper classes are now? There are two official (ie covertly upper-class) answers to this: first, the upper classes do not exist, they have been abolished, we're all middle class now – so there; second, the upper classes are somebody quite else – often foreign and not 100 per cent nice.

On the abolition front, the polls speak loud – only 1 per cent of UK grown-ups polled by The Future Foundation in their 2006 "Middle Britain" report described themselves as "upper-class" from a choice of social categories. I strongly suspect most of those were either very old or borderline bonkers, rather than really Upper. The first rule of the (old) Upper Class Club always was that you don't talk about the Upper Class Club.

George Bush is by American standards rabidly Upper Class – Eastern, Socially Attractive, WASP, 19th-century money, several generations of Andover and Yale (and, while we're at it, his father, George H W "Poppy" Bush, was a former president and his grandfather was the Nazis' US banker in the 1930s). But George Bush (and his advisers), believing that the American electorate would never vote for a posh East Coaster again, miraculously turned himself into a Texan Everyman, as if Cameron had gone to Yorkshire and morphed into Geoff Boycott. In other words, any leading politician in a media age must find ways – a rhetoric, a cultural symbolism, a style and a tone – to allow a significant chunk of the electorate to identify with him at some level.

And David Cameron, guided by his marketing helper Steve Hilton, has done it rather subtly and credibly. Not with Mockney or silly clothes (it never works), let alone denial or talking about his background variously as "posh" and "privileged" – but rather by building bridges in his foreground, with mild, civilised middle-class modernity on display in the house, by heart-in-the-right-place cultural signals of, say, greenness (though "greenness" to the max is vv Upper, cf. Zac Goldsmith) and familiar demotic tastes (TV programmes Gordon Brown would never really have watched). And simply by handling the whole thing with sustained (Upper) confidence and iron-clad courtesy.

But there's more, because all this sounds like fakery and bad faith and that's not really what I'm saying. I believe that at some level David Cameron really does see himself as middle class, precisely, perversely because he comes from a social vantage point where he's been able to see the absolute and Way Out Of Sight Upper Class – the Global Plutocrats, and the residual Edwardian Haut Ton of still-rich, still landed, Upper families who've still got it (like the grand family his engaging, slightly Mocknified, loads-of-common-touch wife comes from). People 99 per cent of the nation never see.

By these lights, David Cameron will be able to think and talk about himself as middle class. It's about foreground – his recent lifestyle (an essentially middle-class marketing-speak word), careerist MP's income, house, car, etc, shared with a fair few educated, upper-middley professionals. People he sees and meets in Big London, many of them more "meritocratic" in background – meaning from more recognisably middle-class backgrounds than his (teachers, middle-managers, etc), who've gone to "good" state schools in nice areas – but followed by Oxbridge.

Now if you're starting to think this is preposterous, consider the evidence in Polly Toynbee's recent book Unjust Rewards, where a group of the hugely rewarded (City bankers, etc) told her in focus groups that they thought the income threshold of the top 10 per cent of income earners in the UK was probably about £120,000 a year (it's actually nearer £40,000). And that the "poverty line" income for a couple was around £22,000 a year (it's £11,000). It's the Big London Effect.

If you live and work in Big London, the smart centre, it's easy to think that everyone you know – everyone "middle class" – earns at least £100,000 a year and deserves it, because they're often meritocratic and that bit multicultural, too (and overt, petty snobbery and racism are shriekingly, screamingly Non-U, of course).

And if you're in Big London's global success world, highly educated (a first-class honours degree in PPE from Brasenose) and a hard-working careerist, there are those winner-takes-all returns to talent of whatever kind within all those notionally "middle-class" career structures. Compare the earnings of country solicitors with the millions that partners in the London Top Ten firms earn. They're all still "middle class".

In London – and forget those extra public pressures on politicians – the lovely old Sloane world of manor houses simply hasn't cut it since Big Bang in 1986, the point at which Mrs Thatcher really started to achieve her ambition to make this country more like America – its ambition, economy, it's very tangible measures of success. In any case, the "middle classes" some headline writers cite daily (ie their own dear readers) are hopelessly fragmented and fluid now: incomes range from £25,000 to £2.5m a year; there is a huge geographical divide between the smart, successful urban (upper) middle class Cameron identifies with (overwhelmingly in London and the South-east) and the rest; and all those clear 19th-century notions of middle-class "values", behaviour and taste are under pressure from the wider world.

And all the "trad visual" symbolism Ann Barr and I described back in the 1980s in The Sloane Ranger Handbook, the brown furniture, good silver candlesticks, elaborate curtains, close-hung 18th- and 19th-century pictures – is strictly for the wrinklies back in the country. It's been abolished too.

Michael Lewis, the American author of Liar's Poker, once told me how, working for Salomon Brothers in London in the 1980s, he saw his employers proposing to apply American-style recruitment tests to Oxbridge's Brightest and Best – David Cameron's slightly older peers. These routines involved all-American stuff like shouting to your fellow applicants things like: "I want this job so much I'd bite the ass off a bear". Lewis, convinced he knew his smart Brit friends so much better than this crass employers, said it'd never work with such a stiff, self-conscious bunch. So what do you think happened? All together now... "I WANT THIS JOB SO MUCH..."

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