The subtleties of snobbery

Where exactly do the Majors stand on the social scale, asks Polly Toynbee
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The Independent Online
"It is impossible, in our condition of society, not to be sometimes a snob," Thackeray wrote in his Book of Snobs. He might have said in any human society, anywhere, for we define ourselves through an intricate filigree of highly personalised snobberies and tastes.

Patricia Dessoy, John Major's sister, speaking to the world for the first time this week, in a long interview in the Daily Telegraph, displayed the rawest of sensibilities on the subject. The newspaper, with its own finely tuned social antennae, picked up every nuance with lip-smacking relish: they had it both ways - poor Pat being patronised by the smart world, they implied, while subtly patronising her themselves simply by letting her talk.

Where exactly did the Majors stand in the social scale? Who were they? What are we to make of the cradle of our Prime Minister's social attitudes? Pat, the widow of a master baker and mother of an operator of colour printing machines, is full of that same prickliness we observe in her younger brother. Her contempt for the older divorcee across the road, with whom the 20- year-old John had an affair, bubbles over into a deeper fear that the woman had the cheek to patronise the family. Like families everywhere, she defends her brother and their background stoutly against any snobbish outside observer, yet wields a mean sisterly stiletto knife of her own.

Why has she never ever been invited to Downing Street or Chequers? "I would like to be invited, but I think John is protecting me from those who might look down on me because so many people have been snobbish to him." It is a recurrent theme in her account of their life; a family warily on the lookout for anyone who might judge them to have come down in the world, because they did indeed take a steep and painful tumble. When the garden-gnome business went bust,the Majors' three-bedroom bungalow was exchanged for a two-room Brixton flat

The family comes out brilliantly on values, with Pat taking a job rather than going to college, to pay off parental debts for the sake of family honour. But on social standing she is keenly on the lookout for slights. So, she implies, is her brother. She says: "The woodenness started as a form of self-protection," when he became a Conservative counsellor. "You had to sound, look and act in a certain way or no one would believe you had Conservative values."

His greyness, she says, helps him pass muster and move between cliques in a snobbish world. It is easy to imagine how fear of contempt has honed his peculiar verbal and stylistic minimalism. There is nothing left to mock beyond the flatness of his South London voice and the aridity of his robotic vocabulary. Who would be robust enough not to blench in a party where the effortless snobbery of the aristocracy gilds the sharp Oxbridge wits; where cruel Critchleys can contemptuously damn the Majors of the party by calling their ilk "the garagistes". They even mocked a self-made stately-home owner like Heseltine as a "Man who had to buy his own furniture".

Snobbery of such brutish savagery is unknown to most of us these days. Hyacinth Bucket is a character out of the Fifties, and we can laugh at her with ease as a bygone absurdity.

However, subtler varieties of snobbery flourish everywhere and always will, as much among teenagers as their elders. What, after all, is the meaning of the contempt in which they hold those "sad" cases who do not conform to whatever it is they all conform to? The right trainers or hair in their eyes,Adolescents demarcate their own snobbish boundaries to bolster up their fragile identities.

But we all do it, though with more finesse and subtlety as we grow older. Snobbery defines us, too, though it is not talked about in polite society. Said a son to his mother the other day within earshot of me: "You used to call things 'common' when we were young." "Rubbish," said his sister, "she never did. That would have been far too common." So it goes, layer upon layer.

Some snobberies are rampant - and oft displayed among Telegraph columnists where new vulgarities are rooted out weekly. The awful crowds at the Cezanne exhibition who don't really look at the pictures; the frightful business men with their boxes at Covent Garden entertaining the Japanese, when none of them know their Parsifal from their L'Incoronazione di Popeia. Others are more subtle: academics despising one of their number with a vulgar taste for appearing on television; any change at all to Radio 3 or 4; brightly patterned carpets or curtains that look like hitched up knickers; Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Branson or noticeable cars. Add your own here ... but they all have meaning, creating cultural and generational clans, reassuring, self-identifying and infinitely comforting.

John Major's sister portrays a man shaped and damaged by an old-fashioned pernicious snobbery. Would it still be so for a new entrant to the Conservative Party? Perhaps not in so coarse a form. As a nation, we often castigate ourselves as a more class-ridden and snobbish society than others, but there is scant evidence for this. The Americans' self-image as the classless society is laughable to anyone who has lived there for any length of time. The Barons and the Vons occupy, if anything, more positions of real power in republican Germany than our hereditary peerage. Since the Sixties and Seventies, socially we have become a nation reasonably at ease with ourselves, as Major said he "wunted". That, of course, says nothing about poverty and misery, but it marks the welcome passing of social anxiety that went with class-obsession, the death of social deference. There may no longer be deference, but difference will always be with us.