We Brits are more class obsessed than ever – which plays right into Ukip's hands

No one has quite managed to pin a class image on Farage’s party

Terence Blacker
Sunday 23 November 2014 18:59 GMT
Glossy posse:  Editor Kate Reardon (centre) and team
Glossy posse: Editor Kate Reardon (centre) and team

There will, presumably, be a White Van Man documentary series. A film crew will move in to reveal the truth beyond the crass tabloid headlines, and uncover what life is really like in the White-Van family. Although it will, of course, be warts and all, it will not be the slightest bit judgemental. It will give the White Van community a voice.

Why not? One of the few certainties in modern British history is that a story about class will be given a good outing on TV and in the press.

Snobbery is in the national bloodstream and, as the events surrounding last week’s by-election have confirmed, it colours the way we see events and issues far more profoundly than we like to think.

There is, admittedly, a difference between modern class-consciousness and that of the past: today, we prefer not to admit to it, and the media plays along with the illusion. Some might argue, for example, that Posh People: Inside Tatler, the three-part BBC documentary starting tonight, is about the workings of a style magazine in 2014, just as the makers of Benefits Street suggested their series was essentially about poverty and dependency, but we know the truth. The clue is in the title. It will be another opportunity, hard on the heels of Life Is Toff and Made in Chelsea, to gawp at braying Sloanes at work and play.

It is yet another documentary about class.

Three or four decades ago, television was more open about social difference, and encouraged viewers to laugh at it. The class joke, as much as the race joke and even the sex joke, lay behind many of the best, and even more of the worst, situation comedies.

There was Basil Fawlty oiling up to a fake lord, Peter Bowles (risibly nouveau riche) and sparring with Penelope Keith (acceptably posh). The central and cheerfully repeated joke of Jimmy Perry’s and David Croft’s comedies was to mix up the classes, whether in the Home Guard, a holiday camp, or an entertainment troupe in India, and let pretension and awkwardness do the rest.

In retrospect, there was something quite honest about laughing at the subtle gradations of the class system, most memorably captured in the relationship between Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in Dad’s Army. In its way, it was quite subversive. If we feel superior to that kind of comedy today, it is hardly a surprise.

Every generation likes to think that it has outgrown the social prejudices of the past, and it never has. In 1959, after Harold Macmillan won the general election, he announced that “this election has shown that the class war is obsolete” – and then formed a Cabinet containing several peers. Margaret Thatcher made a similar pronouncement 25 years ago, with one of her more cumbersome jokes (“I want to get totally rid of class distinction. Marks and Spencer have triumphed over Karl Marx and Engels”).

There was Major’s “classless society”, John Prescott and “we are all middle class now”. Even Cameron, amazingly, has boasted of building a society “where it’s not who you know or where you’re from but who you are and where you’re determined to go”.

The idea that we are becoming less class-conscious is, as Emily Thornberry proved last week with her disastrous tweet, utterly self-deluded. Her picture of a white van outside a small terraced house bedecked with St George flags has provide the media with a double-hit of snobbery.

The first target was the kind of boorish, right-wing working-class stereotype, once represented by Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character. Then attention turned to a relatively new social type, Islington woman – leftish, well-heeled, looking down on the rest of us from her expensive house. The more we cling to the myth of classlessness, the more fascinated we are by documentaries about Tatler or people living on benefits.

These attitudes colour the way we look at political parties. One lot, we are repeatedly told, consist of toffs who are out of touch with ordinary people. The other two are dominated by metropolitan liberals whose lifestyle is more cosseted than their political views would suggest – a more damaging image since our culture has always had a sneaking affection for the upper class.

All this has played into the hands of Ukip. In spite of the most earnest efforts of satirists, no one has quite managed to pin a class image on Farage’s party. Does it consist of breezy saloon-bar right-wingers like its leader, or is it a home for eccentric mavericks with unpleasant views? Where does White Van Man and his family fit in?

No one quite seems to know, and as a result Ukip has been allowed to present itself as a new force in politics. When Farage announces that his party represents an end to class prejudice, we shall know that he and his chums have finally become part of the Establishment.

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