You think you're better than me, don't you?" "Yes," I replied crisply.
I was halfway down the staircase of my esprit de l'escalier. "I do think I'm better than you. But then you think you're better than me. We all think we're better than each other, it's how we get through life."
Is that true? I know so little any more. Do we all deep down think we're better than each other? How about our most successful egalitarians in the journalistic and political worlds: do they think in their secret soul that they're better than elitists? Does a left-wing, egalitarian think he or she is better than a right-wing egalitarian? I'm pretty sure both think they're better than me.
But you see them, the prosperous, highly educated, well-paid liberals talking to staff – counter clerks, waiters, cleaners – with such exaggerated respect the only obvious thing in the exchange is the gulf between them. The breathy, unthreatening voice, the over-thankfulness, the elaborate consideration, it all says, "I know you've got to do this job, demeaning as it is, but I recognise you're a person underneath it and would willingly sit and chat, but maybe we better just concentrate on getting a caesar salad to the table. And could I just possibly mention, I did ask for still not sparkling water."
It happened to me once. I was delivering a piece of furniture to a perfect little Cotswold house in Gloucestershire, and the handsome, wealthy, aristocratic, beautifully mannered Indian husband talked to me on terms of such equality that I was quite flattered until I realised he thought I was staff. He was trying to make me feel better about the inequality between us while I was trying to hide the fact that I thought I was better than he.
But how can you dream the dream of equality – not perfect equality, I mean any equality at all – when inequality is the most obvious, most fundamental fact of life? You know, it's got a siren on it. It has flashing lights attached to it. The tilt of this nose, the lilt of that voice – tiny variations can make fortunes and create ruin. Obviously the larger variations will create differences that only the largest souls can ignore.
You can see how inbuilt inequality is by the iron laws of property prices. If you want an equal society you're going to have to unpick the expectations and ambitions developed by 1,500 years of property ownership in England – from mud hut to mansion and every micro-grade in between.
In my little corner of London, even the indistinguishable houses aren't worth the same. With identical external structure there might be £150,000 price difference between the most and least developed. Very different people live in them as a result. We had the deputy political editor of a national newspaper two doors down. Over the road there's a man so unlike the deputy political editor that he has to smoke out of the window.
A number of people rent and they're ashamed to talk to us who own: they think we think we're better than they are. But they also feel they're free to leave at a moment's notice to dig water wells in Africa and that we are victims of an ownership scam invented by fascist plutocrats. So, no, it's not the rich who are the problem. Not the bankers or the footballers. Simon Cowell's multimillions? Bob Diamond's bonus? The Duke of Westminster's leaseholds? These things don't arouse real envy because most of us haven't the imagination to want what they've got.
But come with me across the Fulham Palace Road and visit the Alphabet streets. We will see property prices abruptly double. Just across the road. The houses are maybe two feet wider and have an archway across the front door but they cost an extra half million.
It's possible their owners could bring out a revolutionary instinct in me. They are living in houses that I could imagine myself in, something within my reach, realistically, if things went well. So then, if they steered their children away from my children because mine hadn't gone to boarding school, because they weren't wearing this year's trainers, if their Os were pronounced differently, if they ...
Before I develop my cardiac problem let me do this the other way round. If there were children from the Peabody estate up the road where residential footage costs half what mine does – would I be neutral about their children coming round every afternoon with their diction and vocabulary and conversational range?
I don't want to answer that question, or even think about it too closely, so I won't. It does suggest that manners are probably more important than structural inequalities. The way we talk to each other. The interest we take in each other, the companionship we can find in each other is more important than the money differences between us.
It's not the very rich or the very poor that create the problem for egalitarians. It's neighbours. The people next door, one sub-class either side. It's boundary disputes – that's where the real action lies.
And therein lies a great political fact. It may be a great undiscovered fact, or maybe it's the underlying assumption of politics and the reason why nothing changes very much, and pretty slowly when it does.
Most men don't want to be wealthy, and have a worldwide career. And most men – if I really can speak for most men – don't want to be free, have power, or enormous choice in life.
What most men want is to do a bit better than their father. That's all.
It's not much to ask. And it's usually achievable. Men want to be like their dad, but to be a bit better at it.
If you were brought up in a flat you'll be happy in a nice semi. If you were brought up in a nice semi you may need a vicarage and five acres. If you were brought up in a vicarage with five acres you are statistically insignificant and needn't trouble us.
But that seems to be the trick, l'esprit at the bottom of l'escalier. Thinking we're better than other people, even our dear old dad. But being fond enough of them not to remember it, and particularly not to remind them of it.Reuse content