‘Ah, beware of snobbery,’ said Cary Grant, who was surprisingly often the smartest guy in the room. ‘It is the unwelcome recognition of one’s own past failings.’
In Britain, the only place where true toffs abide and, let’s face it, the place where modern snobbery was most successfully codified, it is still a more powerful force than we like to acknowledge.
Brexit was a comedy of the thwarted snobbery of the right and left. A referendum was organised by a Remainer toff who assumed he would win because, well, he was a toff. He was, in the event, comprehensively defeated and deposed. Meanwhile, the even more fervently Remainer middle-class bien--pensants, who sincerely believed they spoke for the working classes and who said they wanted to hear their voice, turned out to be fabulously deluded when they did.
By doing the ‘wrong’ thing by the standards of their ‘superiors’, only the working classes left the stage with their dignity intact. As the curtain fell all were agreed — this one will run and run.
The toffs have now retreated to plot against Theresa May, their unexpectedly ruthless and irretrievably grammar-school nemesis. American and British middle-class bien-pensants told themselves a deliriously condescending tale about how the (unstatedly ignorant) workers had been misled by the lies of the Brexiters.
The losing half the population regarded the winning half with pity and, more often, disdain. This was a class matter: suddenly it was OK to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with people worse off than you. Snobbery was respectable again; a dangerous development.
In 2011 that hero of the new left, Owen Jones, wrote a book called Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class. It made many fair points; Jones was rightly outraged by inequality and the class scorn the chav classes have endured. But the Brexit vote made an even fairer point — those who aspired to care for the workers had failed and would, thanks to the Corbynism which Jones supported, continue to do so.
To see Brexit in terms of class is to root it firmly in British soil. Class is the tribal system to which we still cling. In America, money decides the hierarchy. In France, intellectual status. A form of snobbery is involved in all such systems. Snobbery in its most harmless form involves what Sigmund Freud called the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ — pathetic little status badges like a billion more dollars, an acquaintance who once met Bernard-Henri Lévy or the wearing of creepy black velvet slippers at dinner. Freud decided this was not something to worry too much about.
‘We can now see,’ he wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), ‘that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.’
Freud said that without the narcissism of minor differences — petty snobbery in essence — we might fight each other. But British snobbery is different. It is highly specific and highly significant, not to say vicious. The assorted minor-difference watchers — design freaks, fashion fuckwits and comedians — should not lull you into thinking real snobbery is a frivolous matter. Alain de Botton, in his book Status Anxiety, gets this right, not least by pointing out that in the 1820s the word ‘snob’ emerged from Oxbridge, where colleges often wrote ‘s.nob’, short for ‘sine nobilitate’ — without nobility.
‘In the word’s earliest days,’ writes de Botton, ‘a snob was taken to mean someone without high status, but it quickly assumed its modern and almost diametrically opposed meaning: someone offended by a lack of high status in others, a person who believes in a flawless equation between social rank and human worth.’
There it is — the moral point. An accident of birth, to the true snob, is not, in fact, an accident. You are, from the womb, imprinted with a grandeur and a value unavailable to the rest of us. We may speak of the virtues of aspiration, of hard work, of getting on, but however much you may strive, you will never be so imprinted.
Obviously there is no material sign that any such imprinting process occurs. This is an extreme superstition which is clung to by some people all the time and which is embraced by many more when their cherished beliefs are offended. The British, under pressure, default to snobbery.
My own theory as to why this may be lies in cultural history. We are taught that our morality and culture derive ultimately from classical Greece, that from Athens to us is, as William Golding once put it, ‘the right line of history’. Toffs, in particular, love this idea — Boris Johnson, for instance, positively wallows in it.
I have always found this notion bizarre in the extreme, not to say plainly wrong. Greek philosophy and drama is a self-help guide for the Athenian elite. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, Aristotle’s ponderings on ethics and politics were written from a position of rank snobbery — he had no concern for, MacIntyre says, women, slaves, servants, farmers, fishermen or anybody who actually made anything.
The reality is that the much more inclusive ethics and morality of western liberalism descend not from Greece but from the Sermon on the Mount filtered through the Enlightenment. And what did Jesus say? He said the meek, the poor and the hungry mattered, that all apparent differences in wealth and status were levelled in and by the sight of God.
In defiance of the culture from which their privileges spring, real snobs believe that this is false, that superiority and inferiority are in-born. Even occasional snobs, hobby snobs, betray traces of this belief; it is, in fact, built into the meaning of the word. This is now being further reinforced by a technocratic society that eschews all metaphysical valuations. And equality — this is something the left should learn — is necessarily a metaphysical value, because physically we are definitely not equal. There has to be a leap of faith even in the making of a secular, liberal society.
Full-blooded snobbery is what we should look out for. It is this form of snobbery that, stripping away all the comedy, the narcissism of minor differences and the politics, still exists poisonously in British society and which lately seems to have been given a new lease of life, first by the rise of the toffs to power under Cameron and now by the post-referendum conviction there is some inherent flaw in those who voted to leave.
The more you notice snobbery, the more you discover and the more revolting it becomes. In a censorious age, we selectively protect minorities from our most vehement impulses. Racism and sexism are forbidden (ageism, disgracefully, is not). Snobbery is exactly like racism in that it judges us not for what we say or do but for what we most unalterably are. Snobbery, in short, is often funny but always evil.