It takes a snob to know one, John

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RACIALLY prejudiced - that's what they are at the Guardian, which published a leader last week arguing that 'it is at least fair to Mr Major to remember that no other European chieftain has anything more inspirational to offer, that circumstance has made pygmies of them all'.

Pygmies aren't a product of myth - they are real, often persecuted people. We have been taught not to use words of abuse such as Kaffir, nigger or yid. Why use pygmy in this way?

I know what Peter Preston, the paper's editor, would say in self-defence. Yes, he would say, it is true that we are inconsiderate racists at the Guardian, but at least we're not snobs; our argument was that the recession had reduced the stature of all leading politicians in Europe, so there is nothing odd in the fact that Mr Major turns out to be, if you like, a person of reduced moral stature.

As the same leading article put it, 'Mr Major has more than his share of special problems. One (the least lovely) is the snobbish bile poured upon him by the orotund dispossessed of the Thatcher regime.'

In other words, the Guardian thinks that the ugliest problem facing Mr Major is William Rees-Mogg.

An extraordinary state of affairs, when you think about it, but the Guardian is not alone in this opinion, which is shared, to a greater or lesser degree, by Sir Norman Fowler, Sir Bernard Ingham and Sir John Junor, all of whom have knighthoods but none of whom are in any way snobs themselves.

These three Sirs expressed indignation at the fact that, last Monday, Lord Rees-Mogg wrote a column in the Times arguing that John Major was over-promoted, not up to the job and due for replacement. Mr Major was apparently much upset by the attack, and the response, 'Mogg's only saying this because he's a snob', must mirror the Prime Minister's own hurt feelings.

The Rees-Mogg line had been that the correct level for Mr Major would have been deputy chief whip, a conclusion that many may share. This line is only snobbish if you believe that ability doesn't matter in public life, that everyone has an equal claim to the post of premier, a claim derived from their equal rights as citizens.

Sir Bernard Ingham says he's been here before, during the Thatcher years: 'Jonathan Miller, the polymath, and Baroness Warnock, among others, hosed down Margaret Thatcher with gallons of social snobbery, and Paul Johnson, the writer, no doubt winces after the day he dismissed her for something or other by quoting Browning's 'Never glad confident morning again'.'

I shan't try to defend Mr Johnson against any hint of snobbery, but notice that the Browning quote (if apposite to his argument) is nothing to do with social disdain - that was not what Browning felt about Wordsworth. Notice, too, that the case of Mr Miller has lodged in the Ingham memory. Not surprisingly. Miller called Mrs Thatcher 'a perfumed fart' - which is extremely rude, but not of itself snobbish. It's just rude.

So it is not the content of the charges against Mr Major and Mrs Thatcher that makes them snobbish. Mr Ingham says: 'As a mere grammar-school boy, Mr Major is more vulnerable to the contempt of the empty-headed elite than was Mrs Thatcher, an Oxford-educated provincial.'

In other words, Mr Major should not be attacked by anyone whose education might be better than his, because he is 'vulnerable' on these grounds.

If I were prime minister I should be ashamed to have my defenders argue: 'You may not attack him because you've been to university and he hasn't'

But this, it has been suggested, is the line that the Prime Minister has been urging in anguished phone-calls to editors: they mustn't be allowed to attack me on any grounds because I'm a disadvantaged prat.

Certainly, the Honest John image is a part of the conscious packaging of the Prime Minister. A recent visitor to No 10 was surprised to be addressed by Mr Major from his 'famous' soapbox, the prop that, it is fancied, won him the election. And certainly, if banality is what they are aiming for, the image-makers are doing well.

But they should not be allowed to get away with this snobbism-by-mirrors trick. After all, even if there were an element of snobbery in some recent attacks on Mr Major, the thing that makes him vulnerable is not his humility but his own snobbery. If his accent is a botched fake (and this underlies his inability to read a speech convincingly), that must be because he suppressed his own accent during his rise to power. In other words, he was a snob then, even if he is a repentant snob now.

It used to be common for people to suppress lower-class accents. Now it is the upper-class accent that gets overlaid with yobbism. A pivotal figure in this change of mode was Harold Wilson, who acquired an Oxford accent as a don at Oxford, only to shed it gradually, in accordance with the mood of the era and the perceived political advantage.

Where Wilson set the tone, Edward Heath seemed absurd with his on-the-way-up vowels, and he was wildly satirised. Mr Heath has been around for so long that one forgets (so convincing is the patina of statesmanship) how much of the persona was a conscious elaboration and invention: the yachtsmanship, the musicianship, the Renaissance Man effect.

Then there was Jim Callaghan, who, in common with most Labour politicians of his generation, wasn't too unhappy with where he came from. It would be hard to pull the wool over the eyes of a Labour Party conference: Crossman, Crosland, Healey, Foot - they each had an act, but not, as it were, a face that came out of a bottle, or a voice trained by PR.

The snobbery was markedly on the Tory side: Heath, Thatcher and

Major, problem accents, problem voices, personalities invented on the hoof. Personalities that seem open to investigation, seem to demand it - so that the Observer, for instance, refuses to accept even that Mr Major is really called John Major, and not Major-Ball, like his brother, and so that the Observer's columnist Simon Hoggart has carefully elaborated a theory that the Prime Minister is in fact a Nigerian.

Tory personalities suffer more than Labour personalities because they have worked at the coalface of snobbery. This is the grime on their brows and the dust in their lungs.

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