Major wages classless warfare on Blair

The poor boy from Brixton might prefer peas to pesto. But he sent his children to private school and now he's Prime Minister
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The Independent Online
So class warfare is back. But this time it's a Conservative Prime Minister rather than international socialists who is waging it. It's honest John, the grammar school boy with six O-levels, against fashionable Tony Blair, an Oxford graduate and qualified barrister, hoping to be the first privately educated prime minister for 32 years. The battle of the boroughs: Brixton versus Islington.

It isn't, of course, the first time that John Major has played the class card. In 1990, his clever adviser Andrew Tyrie dreamt up the theme - originally coined in a speech of Margaret Thatcher's - of a "classless society" for Major to run in his campaign for the Tory leadership. It was devised largely to undermine the appeal of his rivals, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd, both also public school and Oxbridge graduates. With Hurd, in particular, it was brilliantly successful, forcing him on to the defensive about his Eton education. Much later Hurd remarked, a little acidly, that he thought he had been running for leader of the Conservative Party, not of "some demented Marxist outfit".

Whether the voters will be as impressed as the Tory MPs were six years ago is another matter. Blair's people say there is no sign that his Fettes public school education even figures in the chatter of focus groups. If true, it may just be that electors don't much care, any more than they did when they gave a landslide victory to the public school-educated Clement Attlee. But it may also be that they may have spotted the contradictions in Major's pitch.

Let's bend over backwards to be fair. Unusally for a PM, Major has little taste for the swankiest bits of the job. He hasn't put on pompous airs and graces; and, yes, he genuinely enjoys occasional fry-ups. He's a man for peas, not pesto. The young fogies of the Tory right have shown a strong and distasteful streak of snobbery in some of their attacks on him. Race isn't the same as class, and Major's embrace for black and Asian supporters in Bournemouth may have borrowed a lot from Jack Kemp. But it wasn't forced; indeed, it would have been nice to hear Tony Blair doing something similar in Blackpool.

But let's not get carried away. Major's family background, for a start, isn't quite as humble as the propaganda would have it. It's quite true that the family had fallen on hard times, and that the move to Brixton from the outer London suburb of Worcester Park must have been hugely traumatic for the young son. (So was the stroke suffered by Tony Blair's father Leo.) But before John Major was born the family had been wealthy enough for his older siblings Pat and Terry to go to private school and to employ a full-time gardener. He rose rapidly through the ranks of the distinctly pukka international bank Standard Chartered, largely through the patronage of its chairman, Tony Barber, a former chancellor of the exchequer. And, thanks to Margaret Thatcher, he also quickly climbed the political ladder, to become foreign secretary and chancellor within 11 years of becoming an MP.

He has a handsome five-bedroom house in Great Stukely, Huntingdonshire. He enthusiastically accepted membership of the poshly wet Blue Chip club in the early-Eighties. His last holiday was spent at the Riviera villa of Lord Harris who, though scarcely an aristocrat, is certainly a plutocrat.

Like the majority of his Cabinet and Tory MPs, Major chose to send his children to private school. This is one reason why some Tories are so annoyed that he has attacked Tony Blair for having gone to one.

The man in charge of his leadership campaign last year was Lord Cranborne, appointed Leader of the Lords by Major and, as a Cecil, the most aristocratic Tory there is. And so on.

None of this, least of all the quibbles about his family background, expose anything remotely out of the way for a Tory politician. It seems positively petty to go on about it. But he started it. And it helps to put Mr Ordinary in context.

But there is an even deeper problem. Some of Major's inclusive rhetoric is a welcome change from Margaret Thatcher - who thought resolutely throughout her time in Downing Street of "their people" and "our people".

But what has Major actually done to bring about the classless society to which he committed himself six years ago? Beyond, that is, tinkering with an honours system which anyway always awarded a few baubles to the humble. He believes in the abolition of inheritance tax - a measure which stands every chance of creating a new, fully fledged plutocracy who need never work if they choose not to.

The class consciousness with which the already famous passage on education in John Major's Bournemouth speech was shot through is peculiarly British. You can't really imagine a French, German or American politician making such an issue out of the personal education of a rival. Part of that, to be sure, is a separatist education system which Major sought to exploit against Blair in Bournemouth but which in 17 years the Tories have done nothing to alleviate.

There is some high ground to be claimed here, sketched out in a recent book by the (Tory) MP George Walden, and involving the gradual integration of some of the best independent schools with the state sector. Yet Downing Street only got round to acknowledging the book after belatedly discovering that Tony Blair had read it and was taking a lively interest. It's a trivial point, but it illustrates a bigger one. It's not necessarily where you come from that determines your attitude to class. Classless is as classless does.