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

Share
Related Topics

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..."

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Software Developer / Programmer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: IT Software Developer / Program...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executives

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of Europe's leading prov...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting the patriarchy with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor