David Cameron and George Osborne have been repeatedly accused by a fellow Conservative of being ‘posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’; ‘arrogant posh boys’, moreover, ‘who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others’. This, say some, is why their party did so badly in last week’s elections.
Perhaps this pair of Oxford toffs should learn a lesson from the quintessential Oxford toff, Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte. He would never dream of buying a pint of milk from the corner shop; his milk would be poured for him, from a jug, at teatime. Sebastian is certainly arrogant and far too busy drinking, vomiting in other people’s rooms, guzzling strawberries and buying eccentric presents for his teddy bear to care about the lives of other people.
But the hoi polloi don’t despise Sebastian for his posh, whimsical ways, his out-of-touchness and self-centredness. On the contrary: no one can help but fall for his charm. The barber who sells Sebastian an ivory hairbrush for his teddy bear, ‘had had ample chance to tire of undergraduate fantasy [and yet] was plainly captivated’. The scout who has to clean up his sick, initially appalled, is swiftly won over: ‘A most amusing gentleman, I’m sure it’s quite a pleasure to clean up after him.’ And, of course, Charles Ryder, the novel’s narrator, gets over his cynicism to fall for Sebastian hook, line and sinker.
Alas Sebastian’s spiral is a downward one, and drinking gets the better of him. He ends up wafting around a monastery in Morocco. But even then, explains his sister Julia, ‘He’s still loved, you see, wherever he goes, whatever condition he’s in. It’s a thing about him he’ll never lose.’ I bet David Cameron would give his right arm to be loved, ‘wherever he goes, whatever condition he’s in’. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about people like Nadine Dorries getting so cross about his poshness.
The thing about Sebastian Flyte is that, perhaps a bit like Boris, he throws himself into things – getting absolutely smashed, falling terrifically in love, sending a whole roomful of flowers. Perhaps it would be a little over the top for a prime minister, but Sebastian’s enthusiasm certainly comes with charm.
No, it’s most definitely not advisable for David Cameron and George Osborne to hit the bottle and become reckless and vulnerable drunks, but perhaps they could adopt a little of Sebastian’s passion and embrace their own eccentricities, instead of trying endlessly to concoct personas they think middle England will like. And I’d love to know what they’d call their teddy bears.
Emily Rhodes is a blogger and bookseller. ‘By the Book’ will be an occasional column on lessons from literature.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2012