I know Alistair Darling had left Loretto School, Musselburgh (for Aberdeen University) shortly before Andrew Marr had arrived (en route to Cambridge), but it was still odd to see the pair of them on my television last Sunday. Odd, I mean, that neither mentioned that they’d been to the same top Scottish public school, even though they were discussing whether it mattered that David Cameron had been to an English one.
I was at that Scottish school, too. Decades had passed, though, so our paths didn’t cross. I remember Marr coming back once, to give us a talk on how we could all become editor of the Independent. Alas, none of us yet has.
Darling was altogether more distant. There was a story, probably apocryphal, about a group of boys on a school trip to London spotting him across the central lobby of the House of Commons. The teacher approached, it was said, and asked if he’d mind coming over to say hello. Darling, legend has it, took one look at these clear-skinned boys in their bright red blazers, considered his position on the Scottish left, and legged it. I suppose it might well not be true. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer fancied writing to The Spectator to point out that he’d be entirely happy having a public chat with his fellow old boys from the fourth-poshest public school in Scotland, I suppose I could look quite the fool. He was a Marxist afterwards, you know. Or a Trotskyist, maybe. I forget.
Drawing battle lines at PMQs last week, Gordon Brown had David Cameron dreaming up policy on the playing fields of Eton. I’m trying to imagine that pair on the playing fields of Loretto. Marr I see as a wiry flanker; lots of tape around those ears. Darling must have been in the back line; one of those drop-nosed, radish-kneed types, in an extra shirt against the cold. In my fanciful mind, I like to think of him once having had a moment of glory. Maybe it was during the annual grudge match against nearby Fettes, in which he brought down a lad called Anthony Blair with a wimpish yet surprisingly effective tackle. Fettes is the third or even second poshest school in Scotland. People who went there were almost grand enough to pull birds like Harriet Harman.
Darling told Marr that the Eton thing didn’t bother him, anyway, conveniently enough. ‘I judge someone not on the school they went to but on the choices they make,’ he said. In other words, the only great sin of privilege is to admit to it. Speak in a hooray voice and wear a Barbour and you are toff scum. Hide it, pretend you had only the same chances as everybody else, go off to Aberdeen to grow a moustache and wear a donkey jacket, and it can’t be held against you.
It’s a very New Labour attitude. By the time that Darling and Blair were preparing for government, it was everywhere. If you went up to Cambridge in 1995, like I did, public school was something you were supposed to keep a dark and dirty secret. Is it still like that? Maybe not. These things probably move in cycles. In the Anchor pub, I remember once being actually berated for confessing my background by somebody who, only with the maturity of adulthood, am I finally prepared to refer to as a fat pseudo-chav from King’s. You didn’t get many real working-class people at Cambridge, I realise that now. You mainly just got people whose professional parents had moved to the right areas because they weren’t prepared to pay. Why there was an assumed moral superiority in this, I never understood.
That’s the Darling mindset, anyway. You and your colleagues can have been through the best schools in the country, but as long as you don’t talk about it, and as long as you disapprove of other parents giving their kids the same opportunities, you can not only preside over the fastest widening in the gap between rich and poor since the 1960s, but also somehow consider yourself a socialist. The few disguising themselves as the many, and still buggering everything up. Maybe there are some battle lines in that.
Can I have another go on climate change? I shan’t be too strident, I promise. I wrote about it here a fortnight ago (precis: man-made climate change probably exists, because scientists are probably right and bloggers probably aren’t) and the response was profoundly depressing. Not because it was hostile — I expected that — but because it was so uniform in criticism. One commentator referred to me as ‘the dumbest leftie out there’. Dumb I can handle. But leftie? Why should believing scientists put you on the left? Why should this be a political spectrum thing at all?
It has become one, plainly. But why, most crucially, doesn’t it bother people on both sides of this argument that their views are so suspiciously convenient? You’re a left-wing anti-capitalist and, for reasons I’ve never properly understood, you inherently disapprove of people building things and making money. And lo and behold, it turns out that this isn’t just amorphously wrong but killing the planet, too. Which is astonishingly helpful.
The right, though, are even worse. You’re a freedom-loving libertarian. You’ve an inherent dislike of the state coming along and stopping you from doing stuff, particularly when the state claims to have a moral case. If man-made climate change did exist, then, you’d be in a pickle, because that would mean that this moral, preaching, overbearing state was actually in the right. That would be tough, eh? But what a remarkable stroke of luck! It’s all nonsense! So everything is fine.
My new theory is that hardly anybody who talks about climate change is actually talking about climate change. It’s become a proxy subject for people who want to talk about all sorts of other things instead. So, realistically, the only voices to which one should pay any attention at all on the subject are either the experts (such as scientists) or those belonging to people who think one way, but might be expected, on the basis of the rest of their politics, to think the other. People, as it turns out, such as me. That’s also quite convenient, of course, but that’s OK because I’m right.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 12, 2009