If you need to know how properly posh you are there’s a very simple test: are you pro- or anti-Brexit?
Until the European referendum campaign got going, I thought it was a no--brainer which side all smart friends would take. They’d be for ‘out’, obviously, for a number of reasons: healthy suspicion of foreigners, ingrained national pride, unwillingness to be ruled by Germans having so recently won family DSOs defeating them, and so on.
What I also factored in is that these people aren’t stupid. I’m not talking about Tim Nice-But-Dims here. I mean distinguished parliamentarians, captains of industry, City whiz-kids, high-level professionals: the kind of people who read the small print, sift the evidence and take a considered view. I’ve yet to hear a single argument in favour of the EU that stands up to the most cursory scrutiny. Hence my confidence that these clever, talented, brilliant thinkers would know which way to go. The Gove way; the Boris way. How could they not?
So there I was at dinner the other evening with a delightful, erudite Old Etonian friend of mine. Let us call him ‘Kevin’ (not his real name). Kevin has an accent so deliciously plummy that if you could somehow tin it and sell it to the Chinese you’d become a billionaire. He is immensely cultured, civilised, wise and sensitive. I agree with him on everything, so naturally, when I asked him his views on Brexit and he launched into his eloquent diatribe on why he believed — and long had done — that the EU was the Abomination of Desolation, I listened in a state of near-ecstasy.
Kevin’s beautifully modulated speech went on for at least ten minutes. (There was hardly a shortage of material.) Then, suddenly, something weird happened. About 30 seconds before the end, Kevin shifted tack, and explained (or actually, hardly explained at all) that for all these reasons the only logical position was for Britain to remain in EU. Something to do with Europe being a lovely place and our having a moral duty to help it set the tone, I think.
Well I wish Kevin were the exception, but this has not been my experience. Most of my similarly rarefied friends turn out to be un-apologetic ‘remainers’. For further evidence of this, see also Sir Nicholas -Soames — who recently assured us that voting to remain is what his grandfather Winston Churchill would have done; Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, who promoted his Europhile views in the letters pages of the Financial Times via a high-minded personal attack on Boris Johnson; and those previously Eurosceptic Conservative MPs who have decided, on second thoughts, to vote with the Prime Minister: a significantly higher proportion of them were privately educated than among the Tories campaigning for ‘leave’, who tend to be of a more below-the-salt grammar, state or minor-minor independent school persuasion, such as Chris Grayling, Steve Baker and, of course, Michael ‘Oiky’ Gove.
Yes, I concede the rule is not absolute. Theresa Villiers is hardly a pleb; John Whittingdale is a Wykehamist; and Boris Johnson is famously an OE. But the key thing about Boris is the kind of Etonian he is: not a born-in-the-purple type like Cameron but a Colleger, chosen for his intellect rather than his money and poshness, and therefore a bit of an outsider. More so, of course, Gove, who — by some accounts — hasn’t always been treated with the total love and respect he deserved from Dave’s Notting Hill set, on account of his early personal tragedy in not having been to ‘School’.
What does all this tell us about snobbery and Tory politics? Quite a depressing bit, I’ve begun to realise. You can see much the same sort of thing going on in the Thatcher era. Who were her greatest loyalists, the ones most in tune with her radical programme? Why, they were grammar-school types with slightly suspect accents, such as Robin Harris and Norman Tebbit — not the plummy-voiced grandees such as Heseltine et al, who were the ones who eventually did for her.
This is also true, I think, of the upper social echelons’ attitude towards Nigel Farage. It’s not that they disagree with much of what he says: how could they, when he’s so refreshingly candid and reactionary and un-PC? But they’ve persuaded themselves that, like Ukip, he’s just a bit too spivvy and downmarket to deserve their open affiliation. This enables them to have their cake and eat it: privately enjoying his every home truth but never being tainted by that awkward, embarrassed feeling which tends to accompany frankly expressed views on matters like immigration.
Am I suggesting that the upper orders are a slippery, disingenuous, morally cowardly bunch? Yes I am, I fear. I first detected it at Oxford and I’ve noticed it very much in my career since as increasingly I’ve written about politics. For a lot of my smarter friends, it’s all incredibly entertaining and outspoken and they love me dearly for it (as I love them dearly back) — but it means they can never take me seriously as a thinker. I’m just too out-there. I’m insufficiently pragmatic. I just don’t get how the real world works.
The reason posh people are so overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU has nothing to do with the arguments for that position (of which there are few, if any). It’s more an instinctive, self-preservational, class-complacent thing. When you’re at the top of the pecking order, of course you’re going to be wary of anything that threatens to rock the boat. Even if you believe in it intellectually, it’s just too much of risk. You have everything to gain by keeping the status quo; too much to lose from its overthrow.
16 March 2016 | British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG