Uppers, Downers and the myth of classless Britain

The idea that our island is becoming more egalitarian is one of our more dangerous illusions

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At first glance, it would seem that something - guilt, perhaps - has sent the former head of Mrs Thatcher's policy unit, Ferdinand Mount, clean round the twist. Educated at expensive private schools and in possession of what he calls "a languid upper-class voice and a semi-dormant baronetcy", Mount has written a book in which he suggests that those at the bottom of the economic ladder should be encouraged to move to the countryside where they would be given, or sold cheaply, small plots of land on which they could build houses.

At first glance, it would seem that something - guilt, perhaps - has sent the former head of Mrs Thatcher's policy unit, Ferdinand Mount, clean round the twist. Educated at expensive private schools and in possession of what he calls "a languid upper-class voice and a semi-dormant baronetcy", Mount has written a book in which he suggests that those at the bottom of the economic ladder should be encouraged to move to the countryside where they would be given, or sold cheaply, small plots of land on which they could build houses.

Too much importance has been attached to farming and to old-fashioned landscape, too much power given to planning authorities, according to Mount. John Prescott's building programme does not, if anything, go far enough. Villages and farmers should be encouraged to sell off fields for housing estates and landowners should be empowered to sell 10 per cent of their land, up to 10 acres, for the same purpose.

Mind the Gap, the book in which these startling ideas are proposed, is propelled by a sense of rage at what Mount argues is one of the great lies of our times - that Britain has, over the last three decades, become less divided by class. The opposite is the case, he claims. Under the government which he served and its successors, Conservative and Labour, it is not only the economic gulf between rich and poor that has grown. A more insidious social division, marked by mutual suspicion and misunderstanding, between the haves and have-nots - "Uppers" and "Downers", as he calls them - has developed.

Even those of us who dispute whether transferring inner-city problems into the hills and meadows is a sensible solution would probably agree that Mount has hit on an embarrassing truth. At a time of unprecedented prosperity and under a government elected on a platform of social justice, part of the British population is more excluded, alienated and generally without hope than ever before.

In a way, the problem is post-class. The rise of a new aristocracy, based on fame rather than birth, has helped to erode the old snobbish certainties. Those who once would have been considered distinctly common (Tracey Emin, David Beckham, Kate Moss) now represent the epitome of confidence and style while naffness is, more often than not, to be found among the ranks of former toffs (Lord Brocket, Jeremy Clarkson, Prince Andrew).

Instead of a moderately mobile, graded society, we now have a single great and gaping divide between those who can share the benefits of early 21st-century life and those who have simply been left behind. For these people, a sort of siege mentality has set in. Because they have no investment in the community and no hope that it will provide any sort of change in their lives, their prevailing mood is aggressively defensive and antisocial - and who, honestly, could blame them?

Mount argues that members of the privileged majority, can, for the first time, live out their days hardly meeting the Downers, seeing only caricatured versions of them on TV soaps. This surely is to underestimate the influence of the new style of documentary. Reality TV and fly-on-the-wall shows could hardly exist without contributions from Downers. Night after night, they appear on our screens, foul-mouthed and leery in a programme about girl gangs, surly and tearful in Wifeswap, raucous and randy on one of the many prurient glimpses into the behaviour of young British holidaymakers abroad.

What these programmes have in common is the attitude of those who appear in them. Utterly at ease in front of the camera, they seem to enjoy being shocking or unco-operative, to luxuriate in their own nastiness. It seems as if they have realised that this is the part they have been allotted and that they are now prepared to play it to the hilt.

Even when these tours of life among the underclass are motivated by concern and directed with sensitivity, the effect on Uppers sitting, appalled, at home is the same. The message conveyed is that these are people unlike us, utterly beyond the pale of civilised society. In front of our TVs, we sigh, shake our heads, wonder whether it is not time to invest in a burglar alarm, and turn with relief to Sex and the City.

Class has become part of the entertainment industry. It provides viewers with pleasurable shudders of horror and disapproval, a peep into the underworld that makes our own cosseted lives feel that much comfier. Programmes that capture the Downer way of life not only point up the growing division between those with a future and those mired in hopelessness, but subtly add to it. Viewers are likely to share the fatalistic view that has taken hold in the Home Office - that encouraging those on sink estates to change and contribute is a fantasy enjoyed by "the liberati", that only a regime of authority, of increasingly punitive anti-social behaviour orders, can provide a solution.

The idea that our little island is becoming less bigoted, more egalitarian and classless is one of our more dangerous illusions. Who would have thought that it would take a former Thatcherite to point it out?

terblacker@aol.com

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