‘Too posh for a pasty’ is not a political critique
The excitable attacks on senior Tories for their privileged backgrounds shows up the poverty of political debate.
There are plenty of good political reasons to bash the current UK Conservative Party. Its clueless commitment, as the dominant part of the current coalition government, to no-growth austerity measures would be a good place to start. As would its let’s-get-stuck-in-chaps attitude to the uprisings in the Arab world. But attacking the Tories – in particular the ruling clique around the prime minister, David Cameron, and the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne – for being dead posh? That’s not political; that’s just pathetic. And desperate.
It seems, however, that there is no shortage of either the pathetic or the desperate, if the number of those queuing up to have a pop at Cameron et al for being born with mouths that doubled up as silver-cutlery storage units is any indication. The initial prompt for this current game of boff the toff was spectacularly trivial. Namely the date on which Osborne, who had recently raised VAT on freshly baked food stuffs, had last been to a branch of the high-street bakery chain Greggs to buy a pasty. Still, Osborne’s answer, given at a House of Commons Treasury Committee hearing, was deemed to be highly significant, as future historians will no doubt recall in sombre prose. ‘I can’t remember’, he said. That’s right. He couldn’t remember. Responding with rapier class consciousness, Labour MP John Mann swiped back: ‘Well, that just about sums it up.’ (The ‘it’ here presumably refers to Osborne’s poshness.)
But that wasn’t the only luxury, hand-embroidered rag the Tories waved to the assembled working-class bullish wannabes. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude also accidentally revealed his unadulterated poshness when he urged people not only to fill up their jerry cans with petrol ahead of prospective industrial action on the part of tanker drivers, but also suggested people put said jerry cans in their garages. ‘Ha!’, exclaimed the Tories’ ever-growing army of anti-posh warriors, ‘doesn’t Maude know most people don’t have their own garage?’. ‘Plus he calls tea “kitchen supper”, the stuck-up git’, they continued.
It may sound silly, but that hasn’t stopped left-leaning commentators (and some old Tory ones), or indeed the Labour Party, from acting as if inverted snobbery was the height of political critique. For one Daily Mirror columnist, it is further evidence ‘of a government run by posh boys who look further out of touch with every half-baked piece of spin’. And for the Guardian’s political editor, the reaction to Osborne’s pasty faux pas showed that ‘politics was suddenly being viewed through the prism of class’. The Telegraph agreed: ‘Class politics is coming back, and not in a good way for the Tories. In the era of no money, they represent the few who have it. Over half of Conservative MPs are privately educated – 20 of them went to Eton. Those who didn’t are increasingly dissatisfied with their party.’
Class politics is not making a return, of course. It is not a social antagonism being played out here, but a personal one. Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the ruling Tory clique are not criticised because of their politics or the interests they might be advancing; they are simply resented for being posh and envied for their wealth.
Not that they have helped themselves. Instead of rising above the endless personal jibes made against the duo since they rose to the top of the Tory party in the mid-2000s, they have taken them to heart. The result has been a desperate attempt to not appear too posh or too wealthy. So, we now learn, one-time Cameron adviser Steve Hilton and Cameron’s PR-experienced wife advised him to start wearing jeans instead of his preferred mustard corduroys – the cords, presumably, suggested rural gentry rather than man-of-the-people. Likewise, a concerted – and ultimately failed – effort was made by senior Tories at the 2009 Conservative Party conference not to be snapped drinking champagne. And of course by playing up the image of normalcy, Cameron invited critics to point out the privileged truth.
That Cameron is concerned with how he appears – that is, with presenting his definitely-not-posh person to the electorate – is hardly surprising. What is being presented through ‘the prism of class’ is really little more than an extension of personality politics. It is all about appearing to be just like ‘me or you’, rather than posh or privileged. Hence the strange spectacle post-Pastygate, first of Cameron apocryphally claiming to have eaten a pasty at Leeds railway station – ‘I have got a feeling I opted for the large one, and very good it was too’ – and then of the two Labour Eds, Balls and Miliband, acting like a couple of plums in a branch of Greggs. Quite why a posh Nottingham High School alumnus like Ed Balls thinks buying eight (!) sausage rolls marks him out as a really regular guy is unclear. Perhaps Lord Prescott had Balls doing the lunch run.
Yet when a nouveau class-warrior points to the Bullingdon-and-braying background of Cameron or Osborne, they really do seem to believe that it carries a political punch. ‘Pastygate is important’, stated one broadsheet, ‘because it throws into sharp relief that the current Cabinet has been drawn, almost exclusively, from the ranks of the wealthy’. Or as Rod Liddle put it in the Sun: ‘[The pasty tax] is what happens when you have a government comprised almost entirely of public school-educated millionaires. It is not simply that they do not care about the less well-off — they are actually actively hostile towards them.’ What does this argument amount to exactly? That because the Tories are, by and large, from very posh backgrounds, they – at best – don’t care about the less well-off and – at worst – want to ruin them? Yep, that seems to be about the extent of the argument. All Tory policies can be explained by some inbred ideology.
And this is where the current vogue for posh-bashing is more regressive than simple inverted snobbery. It assumes rather that people are defined by their backgrounds, that who they are was decided at birth. It is a determinism every bit as retrograde as the racial determinism it echoes.
The irony, of course, is that those currently posing as prolier-than-thou lack the faintest idea of class politics proper. After all, working-class struggle was characterised by a desire to transcend one’s existence as the oppressed class. But as identity politics, ‘class war’ amounts to little more than reveling in proliness while seeking to expose poshness. Which is no politics at all.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.