How to keep up with the Letwins

In this anti-elitist age, snobbery seems ridiculously outmoded. But, argues John Walsh, there's an awful lot of it about ...

Tuesday 05 April 2011 00:00 BST

Like a duchess unwarily revealing her pants to the world's gaze, Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister, reportedly let slip a tiny flash of bigotry. He was talking to Boris Johnson about whether there should be more airports when he allegedly said: "We don't want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays."

Instantly, he revealed himself as a ridiculously old-fashioned snob – the kind who assumes that Northerners are whippet-owning paupers, that the poor should be persuaded to stay in their place, and that cheap holidays are less acceptable than expensive ones in Letwina, or wherever the minister goes in August.

The besetting sin of snobbery is that it reduces people, places, things and behaviour to one dimension, which can be despised without further thought (Kate Moss – common; Birmingham – ghastly; Saturday TV – vulgar; brown shoes worn in town – not done.) With luck they will live, and converse, with other snobs who agree with their views, so they can share conspiratorial shrieks about Kate Middleton's family background or Osborne & Little wallpaper. Sometimes, though, they'll misjudge their audience (to be fair, Letwin was speaking to a fellow Old Etonian) and the cat will be out of the bag.

It's hard to like a snob. It's difficult to warm to somebody who thinks they're better than most of their fellow men, and who marks people down for their perceived shortcomings of possession of place. When Brian Howard (the model for Anthony Blanche in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited) was arrested in the 1920s, he was asked by a policeman where he lived. "I live in Mayfair," he said. "I expect you live in some dreary suburb." It's not just the rudeness of this reply that grates, it's the stupidity – as if a British cop would feel crushed by Howard's popinjay condescension.

It hurls us back to a time when snobbery was ingrained in supposedly enlightened society, when well-born and well-educated people started to worry that nobodies from Nowheresville would, as a result of the 1870 Butler Education Bill, start to give themselves airs, read books, think thoughts, and seize the reins of power. Nigel Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West coined the term "the bedint" in their letters to each other before the war, to mean the benighted, the tasteless, vulgar and hopelessly bourgeois. Now they can seem to us slightly pathetic figures, forever squirming with distaste, constantly on the qui vive for signs of vulgarity blowing in on the modern breeze.

We have, of course, moved on from those days – not quite out of political correctness, but because casual bigotry now sounds so old, so desperately grey-beard. Snobbery, however, is proving harder to eradicate. We may not pour scorn on each other because of where you went to school but we're still capable, I fear, of specialist snobbery. Dear, dear, are you still drinking Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc when the rest of the world has switched to French Viognier? You're not really thinking of holidaying in Ibiza, are you? Or starting a dinner with mozzarella when we've all discovered burrata?

Pitching ourselves as superior to our neighbours is, I'm afraid, a human trait that's here to stay. It's hard-wired inside the human ego to test itself against Mr and Mrs Perfect next door, and somehow find them wanting. But if we must indulge in it, it's better we do so through the medium of technology-possession, than through clinging to fatuous rules about napkin-folding or moth-eaten assumptions about northerners and package tours. The latter just show people, like Mr Letwin, in their true light – not just as snobs but as antediluvian bores.

Oliver Letwin

Reportedly told London Mayor Boris Johnson he did not want "more families in Sheffield able to afford cheap holidays".

Simon Heffer

Telegraph columnist in memo to staff: "Our readers tend to eat Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner; this is not the Daily Star. Somebody actually allowed a piece of copy through this week with the adjective 'posh' in it (it was not a reference to Mrs Beckham, and nor was it being used satirically). It was lucky this was spotted and removed before a nasty accident occurred. I repeat: we are not the Daily Star."

Antony Steen

"I have done nothing criminal. Do you know what it's all about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house, some people say it looks like Balmoral... but it's a merchant's house of the 19th century. It's not particularly attractive, it just does me nicely."

Nicholas Soames

"Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni, and would you ask my friend what he's having?" he would regularly ask of John Prescott, a working-class former ship steward.

Lady Fellowes

"I hope I would never judge somebody because they folded their napkin after dinner," said the wife of the recently ennobled Downton Abbey writer Lord Fellowes. "But I'd never pretend I didn't notice. Isn't that awful? Sometimes, I'm ashamed to say, I'll go upstairs after we've had a dinner party and I'll say to Julian, 'Did you see Cybilla tipping her soup towards her?'"

David Starkey

On, of all people, Her Majesty the Queen: "Nobody with two brain cells would dream of reading all the Christmas broadcasts. Her frames of reference to the monarchy, despite this 1,500-year history, are entirely her father and grandfather. It's this absence of any kind of – to be blunt – serious education." On showing her round an exhibition on the life of Elizabeth I, that he had curated, he said: "It was 'Philip!' Clop clop clop clop. 'Isn't this mine?' Which indeed it is. And that was basically her response. She knew her own possessions. She was like a housewife who'd been left them."

Sir Michael Winner

"The north is not a place I frequently go to, it is an alien country, it is another land, but it is beautiful. The people are very nice but they provide food that is absolutely pathetic and they are incapable of cooking. So where I am going does not totally thrill me."

Stephen Bayley

Telegraph art critic on David Miliband's painting. "It is the sort of thing you can find arriving in Ford Transits at the dreadful Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park. I am afraid affordability is rarely a good test of quality."

V.S. Naipaul

"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

Sir Nicholas Winterton

"If I was in standard class I would not do work because people would be looking over your shoulder the entire time, there would be noise, there would be distraction. They are a totally different type of people."

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