Why snob is a four-letter word

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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Are you now, or have you ever been, a snob? The s-word is the four-letter word du jour, the insult that Labour politicians expect to steamroller all opposition and end any debate.

Defending her much-ridiculed plans for new GCSEs in such subjects as leisure and tourism, the Labour Education Secretary Estelle Morris denounced Britain’s ‘culture of snobbery’, which dares to look down upon vocational qualifications as ‘intellectually second best’ to academic exams.

The Speaker, the Labour MP Michael Martin, apparently believes the criticisms of his incompetent performances in the House of Commons to be ‘an attack on every working-class person from Clydeside’, orchestrated by ‘a snob element’ in the Labour Party and the Establishment. Meanwhile, Labour MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee are to examine the Royal Society over allegations that Britain’s top scientific body is too ‘elitist’ and ‘out of touch’ (ie, snobby).

All of this might seem a little odd, since there is no culture of snobbery in Britain today. The stuck-up have never been held in lower esteem. The muted public reaction to Princess Margaret’s death was partly due to her image as an old-fashioned aristocratic snob. Standard English accents are out of favour even at the BBC. Posh people tend to be treated at best as a silly joke – see coverage of Lady Victoria Hervey – and at worst as symbols of degeneracy – see the treatment of the ‘bad crowd’ around Prince Harry.

The irony is that the phoney war on snobs is being staged for the benefit of our new political and social elite. New Labour has often seemed keen to attack the old or traditional for the sake of it, to create a self-image of forward-thinking dynamism. Much of this ‘modernisation’ has been more about style than substance, as evidenced by the Government’s strange predilection for picking fights with people in old-fashioned headgear: huntsmen, Orangemen, hereditary peers.

In similar style, the attack on snobbery is less of a real class struggle than a stunt to define what is and is not cool and acceptable. As one ‘government source’ (sounding like a 14-year-old Kevin) said of the latest education reforms: ‘This is about smashing that culture of old-fashioned snooty values.’ In order to join the new elite, you must learn the language of social inclusion, just as an upstart like Norman Tebbit had to imitate a public schoolboy to gain entry to the old Conservative establishment.

Nobody wants to be seen defending snobbery. Yet there are real dangers in Labour’s phoney war. Take education. Ms Morris proposes to equate vocational and academic GCSEs and A levels because ‘our nation needs vocational skills just as much as it needs educational skills’. It is certainly true that we often have a greater need of a plumber than a philosopher. But that is no reason to try to elevate plumbing into a philosophy.

In the campaign to put the vocational on a par with the academic, our schools and universities risk blurring the key distinction between skills and knowledge. Skills are vital to do specific jobs. But it is knowledge, in its broader intellectual sense, that creates the basis for moving society forward. Without such knowledge to underpin them, our ‘vocational’ skills would be little more than those of monkeys and bees.

No doubt crusty old gents are over-represented among the fellowship of the Royal Society. But they were hopefully made fellows on the basis of their scientific knowledge, not their social status. Senior fellows are reported to have objected that, as a selective group of Britain’s finest brains, the Royal Society ‘will always be necessarily elitist’. But if new Labour has its way, it may not be for long. Who’s next?

Perhaps somebody should warn the snob-hunters that the England World Cup football team will be drawn largely from a few elite clubs, and will contain no Asians or women (the fact that the captain is widely regarded as a big girl’s sarong does not count).

A snob is a fool who believes that they are better than other people. Yet its meaning is being stretched to include anybody who wants to say ‘this is better than that’ in the arts, culture, science or politics.

Perhaps the spokesman for the know-nothing movement to champion the intellectually ordinary should not be Michael Martin or Estelle Morris, but Madonna (whose husband is a public schoolboy posing as a Cockney Jack-the lad). Awarding the Turner Prize to the man who turns a light on and off, the puerile popster famously shouted ‘Motherfucker’ on live television.

She also said: ‘There’s no such thing as “the best” anything,’ which struck me as far more deeply obscene.

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