It's the way Tony tells 'em...

The right won the political war, the left the cultural. You can hear it in Blair's estuary English, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft
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The Independent Online
IF YOU are Prime Minister, a li'le can mean a lo'. Tony Blair has established an astonishing (there is no point in calling it inexplicable) rapport with the British people, and they seem destined to see a good deal more of one another for a long time to come. On Des O'Connor's show on Wednesday night, he had audience as well as interviewer eating out of the palm of his hand with his rollicking anecdotes about his mother-in-law and Humphrey the Downing Street cat.

But they say it's the way you tell them, and the way Mr Blair told them was in "mockney", a faint but perceptible faux-plebeian accent. Harold Wilson used to broaden his Yorkshire accent when he went North, and Blair lapses into a mild form of Estuary English - the people of a French village "pu' on a li'le show for us" - when he goes on chat-shows: not true cockney, or any other authentic regional accent, but the collection of half-dropped aitches and slurred semi-glottal stops, which is how most people under 30 in South- east England now speak.

You might think his audience would resent being patronised thus, but apparently not, though I resented it on their behalf. And then its significance struck me. The most precise, and profound, description of what has happened over the past generation is that the right has won politically, but the left has won culturally. The Blair government represents the apotheothis of these victories - from Gordon Brown's lowering welfare to Tony Blair's lowering his voice.

Although critics who call Blair right-wing are obviously correct, they miss the point. He is indeed further to the right not only than any previous Labour leader, but than Harold Macmillan or Edward Heath. No gloss put on the Government's "radicalism" can disguise this. New Labour is new in abandoning the residual tenets of any politics left of centre over the past century: redistributive taxation and central economic planning.

And yet, if Blair embodies the political victory of the right, he also embodies the cultural victory of the left. The old hegemonic culture, from "elitist" arts to posh accents, is in retreat and held in contempt. There may still be people braying in traditional upper-class accents in the Crush Bar at the Royal Opera House - or there would be if the House weren't closed - but they are quite obviously an endangered species.

The battle of the accents is not new. Shaw famously said that we were branded on the tongue, and that it was "impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him". Actually, it is quite untrue to suppose that we are the only country where someone's class can be told by his speech. In New York, there is no difficulty in distinguishing a banker from the Upper East Side from a cab-driver from Queen's, or in Paris, a broker on the Bourse from un titi parisien (a Paris cockney - to be told that he spoke exactly like one was the most gratifying compliment my late friend, Professor Richard Cobb said he was ever paid).

What uniquely happened here - as a consequence of the industrial revolution, I think, and the transformation of a society based on rank to a society based on class - was the emergence of a universal and more or less uniform accent for everyone above a certain social stratum. And a very displeasing accent it could be. It reached a kind of peak around the middle of this century. In the very earliest recordings, late-19th- century statesmen and writers don't speak in the strangulated tones of BBC announcers or civil servants 50 years ago. That was the time when Orwell correctly said of the "educated accent" that it was disliked by everyone in this country who didn't speak it, and not much liked by those who did.

Since then, that accent has been toned down, even before it was Toned down. Even the Queen no longer speaks as she did 40 years ago, something you can hear on footage then and now. The real change came between the 1950s and the 1970s.

In 1956, Evelyn Waugh contributed to Noblesse Oblige, "a shameful little book," as he called it. As you might expect, his own contribution was itself shamefully snobbish, but also very perceptive. For all that the idea of "U" and "non-U" promoted by the book was terrorising the middle classes, unsure as to whether they were using the correct vocabulary or not, Waugh punctured the whole concept: "Habits of speech are not a matter of class but of society, and on the whole, English people do not congregate exclusively or by preference with their social equals."

Still, there was, as he said, an unmistakable upper-class accent then, part of a gentry culture which lasted, though visibly and audibly dwindling, for decades. Then, some 20 years after Noblesse Oblige, Waugh's son Auberon reviewed another shameful little book, U and Non-U Revisited, How To Be A Toff, or some such. The trouble with such books, Waugh fils said, was that they gave the rules to a game which no longer had any prizes, since "no one wants to be thought a gentleman any more, except for pansies, foreigners and shady businessmen".

What was true then is truer still today, thanks not least to Thatcherism. She may have spoken a rather awkward form of correct English herself, but, barely noticed, Margaret Thatcher wrought a social revolution: bourgeois triumphalism, Essex man, and the triumph of the lower middle class (compare the background and education of her last cabinet, in 1990, with her first in 1979).

In this respect, as in so many others, Tony Blair is Thatcher's true successor, rather than CR Attlee's.

Over the past 50 years, the toffs have had the stuffing knocked out of them, lost their self-confidence, been defeated - culturally but not economically. The values of Old England are derided in New Britain. Attlee was "Clem" to his friends and family only; Blair is "Tony" to the whole world. Attlee spoke in clipped and awkward public-school English, Blair slurs his consonants. The one created the welfare state, the other wants to die by atrophy. Which side - left or right - has won?