I have been racking my brains to come up with new and imaginative ways of taunting the lower orders about their hilarious lack of wealth recently. Nothing I have come up with, however, quite beats the decision to let Sir Martin Sorrell — one of Britain’s richest people, and a brave and stoic defender of enormous salaries and bonuses for people like Sir Martin Sorrell — carry the Olympic torch through one of the country’s most deprived boroughs, Redbridge, while presumably cackling to himself.
The torch is meant to be borne aloft by unsung commoners, of course; ordinary people who have not been extravagantly rewarded in a financial sense. The sort of people who do not, when they divorce, bung their ex-spouse two parking spaces at Harrods worth £200,000 on top of the £20 million or so, just to keep her sweet. I suppose it would have been even funnier if they had got Bob Diamond to be carried through some desolate borough by unemployed northerners with the torch protruding from his fundament, while he set fire to £50 notes. But I suppose you could argue that this would be crass, and too obvious. Sorrell will do, so long as he is enjoined to shout out at regular intervals ‘We’re all in it together!’ (I wonder, incidentally, if Cameron regrets anything more than this patent and insulting lie. Not even those samizdat Bullingdon Club photos will haunt him quite so nastily. If he cares.)
I read about Sir Martin’s contribution to the inclusive and empowering Olympics a short while after reading Alan Milburn’s warning that the government’s policies might be in danger of promoting class warfare within the nation, in particular the middle versus the untermensch (i.e. people who don’t live in central London). I suppose one should quibble only about the qualification in Milburn’s statement, that unnecessary ‘might’. I cannot think of a British government which has been more consciously antithetical to our poorest citizens since that of Henry Addington in 1804. The left usually hauls the Thatcher administration up as an example of government-sponsored upper-class warfare in action — and it is true that this regime deeply damaged the country and that its supposedly low-born origins and meritocratic impulses have been serially overstated. But the trampling of the poor, and especially (again) the non-London poor in those early years of the 1980s did not seem to be carried out with the blitheness and insouciance we’re now witnessing.
Back then at least the country was largely of the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that the trade unions were responsible for the mess we were in and therefore saw a certain justice being meted out in the coalfields and on the picket lines. Today popular opinion would seem to hold that it is the extravagantly rich bankers who are to blame, if any one group is to blame — and yet once more the punishment is being doled out to the poorest.
Milburn made his statement the day after the Prime Minister’s friend and adviser Nicholas Boles announced that more money had to be cut from housing benefit and that the Sure Start programme should be repealed entirely. This was lost a little in his exciting proposal that Sir Paul McCartney should be deprived of his winter fuel allowance; but if you are on the dole, or pulling in £12,000 a year, it may have made your ears prick up. Much as might George Osborne’s suggestion that such things as housing benefit and the like should be a significantly lower amount in poorer parts of the country, i.e. the north, because the gap between the north and the south is not yet wide enough for the government’s liking. And what happens to those perceived as the villains this time around? Nothing: an inquiry, parliamentary or judicial, and that’s your lot.
The remarkable thing is that there has not yet been class warfare; the poor have been remarkably pliant and arguably quiescent. A recent edition of the BBC’s Panorama tried to suggest — in the manner of the Guardian and the London School of Economics — that those riots we witnessed last summer were the consequence of deprivation. But those riots did not take place in Middlesbrough or Oldham or Sunderland; they took place in London, primarily, with smaller offshoots in Manchester. They were not fuelled by class anger, but adolescent stupidity and racial antipathy and opportunism and greed. Their martyrs ransacked shops for training shoes and white goods and expressed no political viewpoint short of a moronic loathing of the police. The explosion of anger when it comes will be of a different order.
I thought at the time of the last election that the government’s expensive background would cause it problems, and that the chippy class sneering deployed briefly by Labour was not merely a valid criticism, but a powerful criticism of the extravagantly affluent new Cabinet. It is thought of as being not really on, having a go at people for their backgrounds. One can bemoan the lack of social mobility in a general, ectoplasmic sense — we can all do that, even if we’ve been to Eton. We can, like Mr Cameron, sigh a little when reporting that fully a third of our Olympic athletes were educated at private school, and that this reflects badly upon our society. Not so badly, rich boy, as does a government within which two-thirds went to private schools — the same as the judiciary, incidentally, and only a little more than journalists and chief executives. This structural class divide, as bad now as it was 40 years ago, is only ever challenged in a general sense, never directly. I think it’s time to get a bit more personal about it.