Class is the river that runs right through the English soul

Privilege brought this country to its knees, says Tim Lott. But the day of reckoning is at hand

Sunday 06 December 2009 01:00

Why on earth is Gordon Brown declaring class war on the Tories? The party tried the tactic only 18 months ago at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election when Labour supporters dressed up as "Tory toffs". Labour was decisively defeated.

But times have changed – utterly. And Gordon Brown senses, correctly, for once, that something important is unfolding – hence his suggestion that the Tories' tax policy was made on the "playing fields of Eton". It's an attack with real bite, and it's a bite that will get more painful for the Tories as things get tougher economically. Labour ditching its own plans to raise inheritance tax will likewise play well. Because what Brown understands – finally – is that class as in issue is very far from dead.

Class has been resting somewhere out of sight, a fierce but sleeping lion, while we all lived under the illusion that we would all, some day, be rich too, and would benefit as new members of the ever-expanding privileged classes. Now that illusion has been destroyed as it is revealed that the bailout of the banks has cost a staggering £850bn – or £5,500 per family.

The fat cats keep grubbing up their million-pound bonuses as Christmas approaches and we work out that the Tories' proposed inheritance tax break will be of no use to the likes of you or me. And so the lion rises again, hungry – and angry.

It is a noble lion. The time is ripe for good old-fashioned class hatred. The time is ripe for voters like me, because I do – I do hate "them". While all that free money was sloshing about, my hatred was modulated to low-grade resentment. But now the country stands in ruination from greed and privilege, my hate has returned. I am rediscovering my leonine soul, as will much of the nation.

The ruling national slogans are changing. It's no longer: "Good luck to him, he worked hard for what he got." It's eliding instead into a different trope, one that is more rooted in current reality: "That lucky, privileged bastard has insulated him/herself against all the storms the rest of us are weathering, thanks to family/inheritance/contacts/self-confidence/education/social capital. And what's worse, he/she whipped up the storm in the first place with the bolts and thunder of greed and recklessness."

Oh yes, class hate is back; or if it's not, it's on its way. The voters need someone to hate, and they will vote for anyone who will mete out punishment to those they deem worthy of punishment. It may not bring the good times back, but it will make them feel a whole lot better.

As one of those voters with an urge to punish, my hate is very approximate. Roughly speaking, I hate the bankers, toffs, Eton schoolboys, much of the Shadow Cabinet, the privileged, tax dodgers such as Zac Goldsmith, those with offshore havens and those steeped in money and advantage who think that that is their right rather than their privilege or good fortune. I hate whoever was complicit in, or responsible for, our downfall and who is refusing to pay the price.

My hatred is leavened with the truth that, individually, any of these people might be perfectly nice. I have met Michael Gove on several occasions and found him utterly charming. I have a friend who is a banker who is lovely. I have no doubt that David Cameron is decent and that Boris Johnson is good company. They have nice pink little cheeks (why are they all so pink – like little pigs, don't you think?) and they are clean and decent and reasonable.

So I don't hate the people; I hate the class. It doesn't matter that lots of them are individually "nice" or hard-working, or do charity work or treat the common herd as if they really believed that they were genuinely human. In fact, it's the simple innocence of the toffs, their genuine lack of understanding, their true failure to "get it" that makes me hate them. Their inability to understand what it feels like to be excluded, the lack of grasp of the fact that good conscience is not a born attribute but as often as not an expensive commodity, as Alfred P Doolittle, Eliza's father in Pygmalion, was so fond of pointing out.

My class hatred is a bit like racism, I expect – emotional, scattershot, somewhat feral. Like a racist, I can recognise the individual "good" posh boy (or girl), while resenting the group. But there is an important difference from posh-hating to racism. The people I am prejudiced against did not suffer generations of exploitation, slavery and oppression. The people I am prejudiced about – or their class – have brought the country to its knees and are still sticking their noses in the trough, and disdainfully hanging on to their privileges like Marie Antoinette, while PR-buffing their accents into something resembling normal speech in order to fool us again that they have our best interests at heart rather than their own.

My class hatred is not some peculiar individual abnormality. Class is the deepest river that runs through the English soul. Roger Scruton points out in his book England: an Elegy that "class in England is the primary social fact". Jeremy Paxman in The English points out that the "English are obsessed by class". The social anthropologist Kate Fox says in her book Watching the English that in England "everything is touched by class" . Furthermore, despite all the "enrichment" of the pre-2007 years, people have a sense of themselves as working class at heart.

In America, despite their swathes of urban and rural poor, 90 per cent consider themselves middle class. In Britain, where only 12 per cent of the population work in manual jobs (compare with 75 per cent a century ago), a remarkable 57 per cent of Britons consider themselves to be working class, according to the National Centre for Social Research.

What drives this enduring class consciousness? It's not envy, as the privileged love to insist. I've never cared about being rich, personally, and I don't think most ordinary people do. Since I got on the property ladder back in the early 1980s, my house is valuable and my children will suffer if Brown abandons his plans not to extend inheritance tax levels. But that's fine with me. Because it's not fair that they should benefit. They're not entitled to it.

Yet the fact that the children of the rich are not "entitled" to start their lives mired in even more privilege than they already enjoy is something the posh cannot grasp – not emotionally anyway, however much they may pay lip service to it intellectually.

It's just the damn unfairness of it all that offends basic English sensibilities. No one objects to David Beckham's riches, but fact that the Shadow Cabinet is stuffed with the products of private schools when only 7 per cent of the country is privately educated sticks in the collective craw.

Likewise, the top universities and professions and most particularly the judiciary – with 75 per cent privately educated – are overstuffed with posh boys and girls, and that rankles too. The fact that private schools continue to be granted charity status compounds the offence – more tax breaks for the privileged.

The time has come for a reckoning, and again it is gradually dawning on Brown what political capital there can be made out of this. On Friday, a succession of ministers complained publicly about the City lining its pockets as the bankers helped themselves, undeterred by the new austerity, to £1m-plus bonuses. Once so in love with the City, Labour is rapidly falling out of love. It needs to go further. It needs to identify the enemy – for tectonic plates are shifting, and an enemy is required.

Those tectonic plates are shifting away from David Cameron. Why? Because whatever you may think of Cameron's honesty, intelligence and policies, you simply cannot imagine, say, the Tories removing the charity status of public and private schools. Or ratcheting up tax on the rich. Or punishing the City bankers with windfall taxes. Or closing offshore tax loopholes. They may not be incapable of doing it – but you can't imagine it. Whereas you can – just – imagine the dour old Scot turning back to his roots and having a good old soak of the privileged few in the interest of fairness and in the service of the raw emotions of the underprivileged many.

And I am absolutely sure that is what the country wants. Because in times of crisis – and, with £850bn borrowed, if a crisis isn't here already it is coming soon – the people need a scapegoat. The toffs make a very good one. And my God, they've had it coming a very long time. Always, in fact.

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