Plebgate: the truth about their aloofness
It isn’t their poshness that puts the Tories out of kilter with the public – it is their political and organisational deracination.
The pseudo class-war pervading British political life continues to rumble on.
First we had ‘too posh for a pasty’, when Conservative chancellor George Osborne admitted he couldn’t remember ever eating the Cornish tin miner’s staple food. Then we had Plebgate, when Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell shouted something rude at a couple of officious policemen. And then on Friday, we had Ticketgate, when Osborne – yep, him again – bought a standard-class train ticket before realising he would have to sit with standard-class people, and promptly took himself off to first class. The narrative has become deathlessly familiar: the Conservative-led coalition government are a bunch of incorrigible poshos at war with ordinary working men and women. And now, in the prattish form of Mitchell, this cartoon class-conflict has claimed its first ministerial victim.
So what exactly did Mitchell do that was so wrong? Well, having been stopped by a couple of policemen from cycling through the main Downing Street gate, Mitchell lost his temper and had a good swear at the boys in blue. Even by today’s scandal-lite standards, Mitchell’s outburst was hardly resignation material. But then it wasn’t the sweary anger that did for Mitchell. It was the (disputed) fact that he called the policemen ‘plebs’. That is, the problem was the possibility that Mitchell, educated at the posh private school of Rugby, pulled toffish rank and exposed the Tories, once more, to a blitz of accusations that they are a braying mass of entitled, arrogant aristos. Mitchell denies he used the word ‘plebs’, but the belief that he did, peddled by opposition politicians, anti-Cameron Tories and leftish journalists, has proved just too strong. So, in short, a minister resigns because no one believes he didn’t use a rather dated pejorative. What on earth is going on?
It’s not a class war in any traditional political sense, that’s for sure. In fact, even in the facile sense in which the term ‘class war’ is currently being deployed, the Tory-led coalition government is not, as it happens, driven by upper-class enmity towards the lower orders. Rather, it is fuelled by a visionless, politically craven obsession with deficit reduction and a clueless hope that the economy might not be receding by the time of the next election. Cameron, Osborne and friends are careerist, not classist.
No, what really explains the bizarre obsession with the poshness of the Tories, and the fact that really trivial incidents can cause such profound political damage, is the changed relationship between political parties and the rest of society. That is, because politicians are now desperate to appear to be ‘like us’, to be ‘in touch’, any suggestion that they are not in touch with real people, and worse still that they are really posh, is very damaging. This is why you get the embarrassing displays of ordinariness from awkward politicians, and in Cameron’s case the false claims that he really enjoyed a Cornish pasty in Leeds (note the provincial reference) circa 1997.
What is paradoxical about this is that when political parties actually had genuine and deep roots in British society, when political parties really were ‘in touch’ with ‘real people’, there was little interest in individual politicians’ backgrounds. And likewise, individual politicians had little interest in appearing to be ordinary or down-to-earth. Postwar Conservative leaders, such as Anthony Eden or Harold MacMillan, were unashamed products of England’s public schools. More striking still, later Tory prime ministers Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher - him the son of a builder, her the daughter of a grocer, both of them educated at state-funded grammar schools - did not promote their relatively modest backgrounds. Instead, they sought to transcend their backgrounds, even to the extent that any trace of a local accent was absent by the time they rose to the top of their party.
But the Tory Party of Heath and Thatcher was still then a party with roots in society. Indeed, the Church of England could then still be fairly accurately labelled the Conservative Party at prayer. There was no impulse for its leaders to appear to be like us. The party, as a social entity, represented a defined set of social interests, a definite social constituency. In the Tory Party’s leaders, members and supporters recognised representatives of their interests, not their selves.
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Of course, the twentieth-century Labour Party also had deep roots in British society, mediated by the trade-union movement. Prominent figures, from Wilson to Kinnock, had no need to trumpet their state-school education, as current leader Ed Miliband does; they were simply members of a party in which a large social constituency already recognised its interests.
In the case of both Labour and the Conservatives, when they were genuinely mass parties there was no need for leading figures to assert that they were in touch with those they represented. It was a near given, a virtually accepted fact. It didn’t matter if Thatcher had dropped her Lincolnshire twang or Wilson refrained from stuffing his face with Cornish pasties – they were, through their respective parties, in touch with the interests of those they were aspiring to represent.
But the political party has changed. Memberships have withered to a tiny fraction of their mid-twentieth-century highs, and the electorate has increasingly lost interest in caring much about either of the two main parties. And it is because the parties are now little more than deracinated electoral brands, organisationally and institutionally estranged from the rest of society, that their leaders have become obsessed with appearing to be normal and in touch with real people.
New Labour was the trailblazer when it came to making up for a lack of social roots with PR stunts designed to promote its leaders as, just, you know, normal guys. (Privately educated leader Tony Blair’s posture as an unlikely member of Newcastle United’s ‘Toon Army’ was a particular low point.) And where New Labour went, David Cameron’s Tories have followed. Right from the start of Cameron’s reign, he has been concerned with the image of the Tories, and the accusations that they are out of touch. Hence, back in 2009, he banned Tories from drinking champagne at the party conference, on the basis that it would suggest that the Conservative Party was out of touch with the trials, tribulations and presumably lager of ordinary folk.
And it is this, the Conservative Party’s own obsession with, and insecurity over, appearing to be wealthy, appearing to be, well, a bit posh, that really sealed Mitchell’s fate. For a contemporary political party, not appearing to be keeping it real is deemed to be a cardinal electoral sin. It comes as little surprise that, according to reports, several Cabinet members, a large number of MPs and Mitchell’s own deputies effectively lobbied Cameron for Mitchell’s removal. In their eyes, Mitchell had ‘toxified’ the Tory brand; he had made them appear aloof rather than down with the people.
There is an irony to this whole absurd affair. Mitchell’s sin was to act as if the political class was apart from, not to mention superior to, the population. Yet there is more truth in Mitchell’s behaviour than in all the PR-focused efforts directed at making Cameron and Osborne, or Miliband and Balls, appear to be just like us. For all the desperate attempts to make politicians appear in touch, the truth is that political parties have never been more estranged. And never have we, the nudged and nannied public, been more distant.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.