This is not class war it’s a schoolyard spat

New Labour’s childish toff-baiting owes more to a deterministic identity politics than to class conflict.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

Someone was in a bit of a mardy on Sunday. ‘It’s a petty, spiteful, stupid thing to do, but if that’s what [New Labour] want to do, you know, go ahead’, said Tory leader, David Cameron, in between sobs.

Cameron had been upset by prime minister Gordon ‘big bully’ Brown’s response to the Tories’ plans to raise threshold for inheritance tax. A policy, Brown quipped, that ‘seemed to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton’. Brown’s invocation of school was apt, since that is where this level of debate belongs. Not that you’d have thought that given the salivating headlines among some of the left-leaning sections of the commentariat. No, this wasn’t just a gibe from a desperate PM who’d noticed his opposite number had the political equivalent of big ears; this was an opening salvo in a class war. ‘Bring it on’, shouted Martin Kettle in the Guardian. Peter Lazenby, chairman of the Leeds branch of the National Union of Journalists, was equally excited: ‘There’s a lot of people who might be glad to see a Labour government taking a more traditional stance on the class divide in Britain. Go to it Gordon.’

It’s difficult to imagine anything more dispiriting, or indeed unlikely, as ‘Gordon going to it’. Which is just as well, because this is no class war. It’s certainly nothing like the class conflicts that dominated British and European social and political life between the 1840s and the 1970s. Since then, it’s become ever clearer that Labour and the Conservatives no longer mediate, let alone represent, conflicting class interests. They barely represent anyone at all. The mass, largely class-defined bases of such parties have long since diminished. Few members, and little electoral support, will not a social conflict make.

While Brown’s gibe and Cameron’s if-you-ignore-them-they’ll-go-away response are far from an indication of impending class war, the spat does capture something of the changed meaning of class. No longer an indicator of shared interest, class now demarks little more than a lifestyle, a question of how you make a cup of tea, or whether you eat lobster and drink expensive wine. It is an identity just as culturally defined as being Afro-Carribean, or Indian. And, as such, it is every bit as constraining. One is born the way one will be. Cameron, Eton-educated and Oxbridge-honed, cannot be anything other than a posh person, with posh rituals and implausibly cultivated habits, just as Labour’s cadaverous home secretary Alan Johnson, brought up by his sister in a London council flat, is inescapably salt-of-the-earth with little time for big words, Latin or foie gras. It is a decidedly limiting view of people: our backgrounds are untranscendable; they define our future. Which, given that working-class struggle was characterised by a desire to transcend one’s existence as the oppressed class, not revel in it, is more than a little ironic.

It’s telling that background and schooling were of less significance when class actually played a greater role in politics. After all, the second viscount of Stansgate, or Tony Benn as he prefers to be known, has had little trouble being a hero for the Labour left since the 1960s. By contrast, Tory prime ministers such as John Major, the son of a circus performer, and, most famously, Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a grocer, were able to ascend to the top of the Tory party despite their ’umble beginnings. But with the content of political parties emptying out as fast as their membership, the personality of politicians – who they are – has come to the fore. How the politician appears to the electorate is everything, as many MPs have found to their cost during the MPs’ expenses scandal.

It is this obsession with appearance, not a revived sense of class interest, that has allowed Brown and his army of inverted snobs to have a go. It is not that Cameron, shadow chancellor George Osborne, London mayor Boris Johnson, and the rest of the Tories’ privileged brigade are dead posh that’s the problem. It’s that they have been obsessed with appearing not to be. From the anxiety over pictures of Cameron, Johnson and Osborne as rosy-cheeked members of the exclusive, Bacchanalian Bullingdon Club to the neurotic obsession with appearing not to drink champagne or not to be having a terribly tight time at this year’s Tory party conference, they have been obsessed with not appearing posh or privileged. Which, since they are, always left them open to the charges of concealment and hypocrisy, and Brown is now shamelessly trying to exploit this.

As columnist Julian Glover points out, Brown is attacking Cameron’s background because it makes ‘Tory claims about being ordinary look fraudulent. The attack couples Labour’s traditional line – that the Tories look rich and snooty – with a new and potential killer suggestion: that they are fake.’ This is what inspired Glover’s fellow columnist Kettle’s enthusiasm for Brown’s ‘class war’ tactics: ‘[Cameron’s] party is vulnerable to the suspicion that they are highly privileged people who are only pretending to be like the rest of us.’

Labour has tried this before, of course. At the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in May 2008, Labour activists donned top hats and tails to mock the Tory’s toffish candidate, Edward Timpson. ‘I am just a single unemployed mother of five fighting hard for a job’, announced Labour candidate Tamsin Dunwoody, daughter of Gwyneth Dunwoody, the previous incumbent. Voters responded to Labour’s unbelievably crass campaigning by electing the Tory toff Timpson.

But 16 months on, the national mood, prompted and poked by a political class looking for scapegoats for the economic crisis, has shifted. Whether it’s bankers’ bonuses, BBC execs’ pay, or striking rail workers, having and wanting more has been decried as a moral failure, a mark of greed. In fact, the recession as a whole has been interpreted more in terms of moral than economic failings. At the heart of the crisis lies the clawing and grasping of people on the make; self-interest has not only become suspect, it has become selfishness.

To allude to the privileged essence behind Tories’ appearance is to exploit this moralising, resentful climate. Hence Peter Lazenby proceeded to reel off, not the public school backgrounds of Cameron et al, but the wealth of those on the front bench: ‘Philip Hammond £9million, shadow chancellor George Osborne £4.3million, Jeremy Hunt £4.1million, Dominic Grieve £3.1million, Francis Maude £3million, William Hague £2.2million.’ While they might be doing very well, thank you, Lazenby thought it wise to point out that ‘a lot of people are far from comfortable’.

Brown and his comrades in school uniform are not stimulating a debate about tax policy, let alone the economy, with any of this. It’s not the Tories’ politics that’s being evaluated here, but their assets. With austerity the mantra of an age in which wanting more is grasped as a moral failure, to appear to be anything other than austere, in this case to be wealthy, is to be in the wrong. This is the sting of New Labour’s rhetoric. This is certainly no class war; it’s classroom niggling, between those celebrating their backgrounds and those desperate to conceal theirs.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons criticised Labour’s decision to bash bankers at their 2009 party conference. Frank Furedi called the Crewe and Nantwich by-election farce war not class war. And Brendan O’Neill wondered where positive politics was. Neil Davenport asked what happened to the class struggle? He also wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982.Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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