Martin Bright

Let’s Talk About Class

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My posh Tory friends get really irritated when I talk about class. Almost as annoyed as my posh Labour friends. The idea that class was somehow excised from the political discourse by New Labour is absurd. We live in a country where the two dominant political parties are essentially representative of their class. And why not?

It is completely understandable that a political coalition would coagulate around the interests  of business and big money. It would be a pretty rubbishy ruling class that didn't protect its position.

We should also be proud of living in a country which has developed a major political party (and a moderate one at that) to represent the interests of working people - the United States has never managed it and the left in post-war Europe was too often distracted by Communism.

The chip on the shoulder is never attractive in polite society, but I've always thought that chippiness (a bit like being too clever by half) is something to be encouraged precisely because it makes smug and complacent posh people feel uncomfortable.

The Sunday supplement columnists are really irritated by the clumsiness of Gordon Brown's attacks on Cameron's class background (and they were clumsy). Janet Daley, Henry Porter and Minette Marin all have a go.

But as Norman Geras points out in a characteristically clear-minded Normblog post, it is impossible to separate class from the discussion of fairness: "Whatever else class is, it is a systemic set of social and economic differences advantaging some people more than others, and some people very much more than others. To pay serious attention to problems of fairness in our society would be, ipso facto, to address the issue of class."

I would go further and say that the personal background of David Cameron and George Osborne really matters and will have a profound effect on the history of Britain in the next few years.

When I first met the Cameroons at close quarters during the Conservative leadership election in 2005, I couldn't help wondering what they would be like during an economic downturn, when unemployment was high and people started getting poorer again. Would they really care?

I still don't think we have our answer. Of course posh people can imagine what it's like to be poor (many of them join the Labour Party when they do). But which way will David Cameron's head will turn when unemployment hits three million? I still don't think he has done enough to prove that he won't be distracted by the siren call of his class.