Leading Article: Can there be servants in a classless society?

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The Independent Online
IF THE case before an industrial tribunal this week is anything to go by, the armed services have survived the post-Cold War defence cuts better than the outside world imagined. How else could the Army still afford to spend pounds 1m a year on employing cooks for 24 brigadiers and 68 more senior officers? And how would we have found out about the minutiae of life in one such household without the cook - whose primary duty was to cater for the official guests of the deputy constable of Dover Castle - who squabbled with the deputy constable's wife about the courgettes served at lunch while the latter's husband was away in Bosnia?

Cooks, butlers, ladies' maids and other domestic servants are becoming rarer in Britain. Their numbers have been depleted by competition from household labour-saving devices; by British lack of interest in jobs in domestic service, combined with controls on the entry of foreigners; and by a feeling that in an equal society, people ought to make their own scrambled eggs. Only in the most hierarchical and tradition-conscious corners of British life - the services, the Church, Oxbridge and the diplomatic service - does the tradition survive.

Yet even here, times have changed. Servants have become employees, and their masters institutions. The brigadier's wife may never have told her recalcitrant cook, as she is alleged to have done, that, 'If it was up to me, I'd sack you'. But the undisputed fact that it was the Ministry of Defence, and not the brigadier's wife, that was the cook's employer helps to explain the difficulties of this particular relationship.

The British have become so classless that, sadly, they are no better at being served than they are at serving. They ask their staff to call them by their first names. They complain about the consistency of the lasagne.

The untarnished ideal is to be found in the account given by Dame Barbara Cartland in yesterday's Daily Mail. Dame Barbara insists that she enters her kitchen only to be photographed for her cookbook covers (leading one to wonder how she ever wrote cookbooks in the first place). And when she wants to inspire her cook to improve the grub, she pays for him 'and a friend' to go to the restaurants she herself patronises. Not even the Ministry of Defence would run to such largesse.