Simon Carr: Once there was a place for the thick and useless

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The Independent Online

So the Queen Mother's had her 150th birthday. Let me be the first to say, "Good grief, Ma'am!" What a world she's seen come and go. What an achievement. To see all that and not go mad. To have had the status of a minor god, a hundred years ago, and to have come to this: Tony Blair's Britain.

She had known a life where she was so exalted that her servants wouldn't dare look her in the face; now she has her skirts lifted up by the media so they can publish details of her plumbing. What a trajectory. What courage to have survived this hundred-year humiliation. I only came in half way through all this, it wasn't my fault.

When we say the past is another country, it's almost literally true. Dress, customs, manners, language – all profoundly foreign.

When the Queen talked, back in the 1950s, she was unintelligible to anyone under the rank of baronet. Bats, however, used to get disoriented when she laughed, and fly into the ground. Her voice was so high, so piping, so tiny that she sounded Chinese. But it had a great latent power: it was the instrument that kept the bourgeoisie in their place. It was so boastfully useless for anything else, it was like Japanese imperial fingernails: a sign that her servants did the heavy work, like speaking.

That was the world in those days, and not so long ago. There was nothing meritocratic about our famous class system. The Queen Mother was a role model, it's hard to imagine now. Talented interlopers adopted the manners, accent and methods of the class, if they wanted to get on. And everyone aspired to what they could achieve: one subclass above their own.

Middle-class women used something called a telephone voice. It was a special occasion when the phone rang, so they dressed up for it. "Ew, hairlair," they'd say when they knew who they were talking to. It was important not to pronounce the T in Hertfordshire, or the L in golf. You were sent to Cuventry. Catholics weren't entirely respectable. Sexual eccentricities were all punishable. Divorce counted as a sexual eccentricity. Well into the Sixties there were two dressing-room entrances on to the pitch at Lords. One was marked Gentlemen, and the other Players. It was amazing, looking back.

Even in the latter part of the 1980s the Sloane resurgence was still strong. The higher bourgeoisie had been invigorated by their City bonuses. Their accent had changed, to throw aspirants off the trail; Prince Charles no longer said "hice" for house. They were however starting to say: "The anus is on you to behave."

In 1986, at Henley, at the back of a Bentley, a nice young rectory girl, immaculately got up in her pearls and navy blue, said: "Pass me those serviettes, would you?" and in the silence that deepened around her, she faltered, "I'm only saying that because that's what it says on the packet." She was never seen again.

It all collapsed quite suddenly, much more recently than we think. But the meritocracy that Tony Blair says he is determined to establish in Britain will be an interesting elaboration in social exclusion. It's a system of vicious inequality – what happens to people who aren't any good at things? Who haven't achieved anything? Almost everyone, that is?

And because meritocrats have no inherited code of manners, they've made one up for themselves. They are the major beneficiaries of their code, which is why they don't have to speak to anyone who isn't any use to them.

In the old code of manners there was a place for the thick, the useless, the clumsy, the merely decorative, the people whose purpose wasn't immediately apparent but who might come in useful later. No wonder the royal family, God bless them, is its symbol, its champion and its physical incarnation.