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Snobbery, not poshness, is toxic to the Tory brand

By Harry Phibbs
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Let's face it.  The reported comments of the Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, are excruciating. The four letter word that matters is "pleb".  The other reported comment: "best you learn your f***ing place" is along the same lines. It will be seen by a chunk of the electorate, as the mask slipping; the true mentality of Conservatives coming out. The arrogance of power. A belief in being born to rule. A desire to go into politics in order to swank and swagger around. To lord it over ordinary folk.

So this is not a random incident of misconduct.  It plays to a political narrative. There is a problem, and as Conservatives we should be clear about what the problem is, and what it isn't.

Apparently Mr Mitchell is rich.  Good for him.  He went to a public school - and he can hardly be blamed for that.  Evidently he was exasperated at petty jobsworth restrictions - an experience many of us have had.  Unfortunately though, we are left with a suspicion that Mr Mitchell doesn't really mind if the rest of us have to put up with this kind of thing - but he shouldn't have to.  Because of who he is.  In some mysterious way, he is "above" other people.  

 It was Gore Vidal who said: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."  Is that also Mr Mitchell's outlook? Does he really believe in Thatcherite aspiration? Does he really want everybody to be rich? Or does he think he should be rich and the rest of us should "know our place."  Motivated by a wish to ossify the structure of society and thus stay on top and ensure the rest of us remain in our "f***ing place."

For Conservatives the belief in the rule of law is fundamental. Thomas Fuller said: "Be ye ever so high, still the law is above you."  Does that comment reflect Mr Mitchell's thinking?

Envy runs deep in human nature and that means there will always be a solid chunk of popularity for socialism - of some people envying the rich, not recognising their essential same humanity, and wanting them brought back down to earth.  The real problem is if the Conservative Party effectively reflects this same thinking - only some of us can be rich, its us, we're somehow different to others, and we are going to stay on top.  

John Major hates snobbery and his most famous phrase was the "classless society." This didn't really mean the end of the class system but an end to class barriers. That there should be economic and social mobility. His predecessor, who overcame considerable snobbery from the "wets", did an extraordinary amount to widen opportunities and spread ownership and meritocracy. The old fashioned wets had a decent but pessimistic belief that a paternalist approach was needed due to the inability of the "lower orders" to "better themselves." Their message had some political traction in an era of deference. In fairness to the old wets most would probably feel horrified by Mr Mitchell's vulgar display.

Class has long been a staple for the British sense of humour.  PG Wodehouse, of course.  So many of the jokes in TV sit coms like Dad's Army are about class.  Evelyn Waugh, described in 1959, his alarm at losing the class system and wrote about it in the past tense:

"It was thought absurd by many and detestable by some, but it was unique and it depended for its strength and humour and achievement of variety: variety between one town and another, one county and another, one man different from another in the same village in knowledge, habits, opinions. There were different vocabularies and intonations of speech; different styles of dress. Now all these things that gave salt to English life and were the raw material of our Arts are being dissolved."

Of course, far from fizzling out in 1959 this merry kaleidoscope of the class system is continually renewed and enhanced. That sort of spirit is quite consistent with the liberalisations of the Thatcher and Major years and of the current Government. Ending the ghettoising of the poor on council estates would help break down class barriers and improve social harmony. So would ceasing to trap people on welfare. So would giving them an alternative to sending their children to failing state schools. These changes would not be the loss of what Evelyn Waugh was describing.

So there is no problem with poshness, but there is with awful sneering, prissy snobbery. Boris Johnson is popular despite having been to Eton. Indeed the unapologetic aspect of it, the heartiness and eccentricity of his poshness adds to his popularity. Most important though is his ability to engage with everybody.  He may be rich but he is not against the poor. Many have the same feeling regarding David Cameron who is also relatively popular for a politician.

In a way Mr Mitchell's outburst reminds me of the expenses saga. Of people having a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of service. Sir Peter Viggers and the duck house. Douglas Hogg and the moat. Antony Steen saying that it was "jealousy" that we complained about him charging us £87,000 for maintenance for his "very, very large house." They couldn't grasp that many might feel it's fine to have a duck house, or a moat, or a very, very large house. But they shouldn't charge the taxpayer for the upkeep. It's fantastic that Nick Boles is learning Hebrew but he should pay for the lessons himself. Is the concept so hard to understand?

The state should be the servant, not the master of the people. Mr Mitchell is probably on to something that refusing to let him leave Downing Street on his bike via the front gates was officious. Certainly a reasonable point to raise in a proper manner with the relevant authorities. The snag is that he evidently felt he should be let through because of his importance - and that the person he was talking to should have "known his place".

If a Minister sees a queue and suspects that the delay involved in unnecessary and unreasonable the mentality should not be to bully the subordinate in charge and demand to get to the front. It should be to make a quiet note to see if the system could be more sensible to ease the situation for everyone else. They also may have a "long and frustrating day." They are struggling to get through their lives burdened by taxes, bureuacracy, poorly run public services. The response should not be: "Make way. Coming through. I'm very important. Best learn your place"

Holding office should not be about making life easier for Ministers. It should be about, wherever possible, the state getting out of everyone's way so that all of us can get on with lives unhindered. That is the point of "running this f***ing Government."


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