Tuesday, 20 January 2009

A Class Act

In addition to a brilliant single-paragraph post on the Gaza situation, Peter Hitchens has this today, really marred only by the term "meritocracy", which Michael Young made up as a piece of satire before suffering the misfortune of being taken entirely seriously by his targets:

Karl Marx's ideas about the 'Proletariat' and the 'Bourgeoisie' have almost no connection with what happens in Britain, where class is not some rigid economic relation to the means of production, but hopelessly mixed up with snobbery and culture - and often plays the same role that race plays in the USA. Or it used to, until we managed to develop race problems of our own, since when class has been a little forgotten.

Yes, we all know the old cartoon idea of class, John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett looking down on each other, or despising each other for looking down on them, or both at once, reinforced by dress codes, tastes in food, and accents. But that version was out of date when it first appeared, and is even more out of date now. I'd prefer the terms 'Striving Class' for all those, in the old middle and working classes, who simply believe that hard work and self-discipline, prudence and forethought, are the foundations of a decent life.

The destruction of our manufacturing industry and the break-up of the council estates (by a weird alliance of trade union militants and Thatcherite free marketeers) means that the old manual working class has almost ceased to exist. As for the middle class, who wears a bowler hat any more? Measures of status are far more varied than they used to be.

There's also the issue of the old. I won't argue here about whether old people in this country freeze to death. If they do, I doubt if it's quite that simple. They certainly oughtn't to, if anyone is keeping an eye on them, and as I understand it there are elaborate provisions for ensuring that they are able to get heating. But I certainly acknowledge that the old are in a special class, the only part of the population often actually poor by the standards of 50 years ago, thanks partly to the inequity of the council tax and partly to their own loathing of what they see as charity. My target, as I think was clear to most, was the growing class of welfare dependents, created (and who can seriously pretend, as some commentators do, that this is not the case?) by governments who have subsidised such lifestyles, and penalised those who work through the tax and benefits system. The pseudonymous person who claimed that 'socialism values self-improvement' presumably wasn't prepared to be laughed at under his own name. Once upon a time it did, but I defy him (or her) to produce evidence that it does so now.

As for the snobbery, I'll start with me. Asked once on a radio programme what class I was, I responded "Lower Upper Middle Class". This was a joke, and got some laughs (class, because it makes people nervous, is a wonderful quarry for jokes). But the answer was also deadly serious and stolen (I'm fairly sure) from the great George Orwell.

How do I arrive at this? Partly by education, mainly private, though not top-drawer. Partly by ancestry. My father was a Naval Officer, though 'only' in the less-regarded Supply Branch, and he spoke (until the early 1960s) in accents that could have got him a part in 'In Which We Serve' or 'Brief Encounter'. But that was not the way he talked when he was growing up in semi-rural Hampshire, son of a council-school teacher in Portsmouth, nor when he was a scholarship boy at Portsmouth Grammar School. He learned cut-glass diction as he made his way up through His Majesty's Navy.

I think I know how he spoke before he joined the Navy, because I can remember the way his father, my grandfather, talked. He spoke with the beautiful Hampshire burr (now almost entirely lost) which you could sometimes also detect on the edge of Jim Callaghan's voice when he grew angry or excited about something. It was a little like a Southern Irish accent (just as many other Southern English accents were before TV and radio made us all speak the same). Some of you may also remember Lord Denning, who rose to the very top of the Judicial profession without ever losing his enjoyably rich and rural Hampshire tones.

I know for certain how he spoke after the cultural revolution had got under way, and it wasn't sensible any more to speak in a Quarterdeck accent in a public place, or anywhere else much. He deepened his voice, as many other middle class people did then, and as even the Queen has now done, taking the sharpness off the cut glass. Some old 1963 tape recordings of him, sent to cousins abroad at Christmasses in the very early 1960s, turned up in an attic a few years ago. They could equally well have been recorded in 1936. It was then that I realised how much he had later adapted to the post-Suez, post-Beatles world.

My grandfather had grown up in pretty dire circumstances in the seething, squalid Landport district of Portsmouth in the second half of Queen Victoria's reign, long before the welfare state came along. The family were stern nonconformists, Cromwellian puritan stock who'd been given a rough time for attending Chapel rather than Church, and had plenty of preaching to do amid the drinking dens and brothels of that far from moral part of the world. These were very harsh times. My grandfather's sister died young in specially miserable circumstances, and he was so suspicious of the official explanation that (as a 13-year-old boy) he crept downstairs the night before her funeral, to unscrew the coffin lid and make sure that the body inside was really hers.

His father had trudged to Portsmouth from Wiltshire in search of work, in some lean period or other for English agriculture, and had helped to build the new dockyards. My Great Grandfather may even have met the great John Pounds, the crippled shipwright who set up free schools for poor children in the Pompey slums, so pioneering schooling for the poor in England. Certainly my Grandfather was a passionate admirer of Pounds (who I'm glad to say is still very much remembered in Portsmouth) , and I still remember him striding round his living room urging me always to remember that honoured Portsmouth name, which I have done.

My Grandfather was essentially a lower-lower middle class Victorian, of the sort who marched off to their deaths in Flanders in 1914, and he was saved from joining all the others only by the accident of being sent to India instead, in a war which smashed to pieces the elaborate snobberies described in H.G.Wells's Kipps. If he cared about his social standing, you'd never have known it. He was proud of his achievements and his learning, and happy as what he was. He was enormously well-read (though he refused on principle to read any work of fiction), and so were all his children, who could effortlessly quote large chunks of poetry at need. There is also something about Portsmouth, often raw and ugly, but with its layers upon layers of fortifications and war damage, which produces an interest in and love for English history.

My grandfather also used to tell a story (I think this was once common among proud English people) about the response of a proper Englishman to any aristocrat's boast that his forebears had "come over with the Conqueror".

He would growl: "And my ancestors were there waiting for him". He was conservative in almost everything, refusing to have a telephone or TV set in the foursquare, modest detached house with a small orchard of apple and walnut trees and its own air-raid shelter, behind Portsdown Hill. His dislike of modernity did not apply to the radio, and the living room was piled with (mostly defunct) fretwork wireless sets, now doubtless worth a fortune if only I still had them). Yet he had been one of the pioneers of the National Union of Teachers.

So I was never in much doubt about the earthiness of my origins.
My mother, by contrast, had had a confusing and disorganised childhood, caused by her scapegrace father's desertion, until she was rescued by rich relatives and taken to live in circumstances of moderate opulence and perhaps a little snobbery. This placed a great gulf between her and her elder sister, who had not been given this treatment and had been sent off to work in a big London department store instead (where in those days the younger staff slept in company dormitories). The two spoke completely differently, dressed differently and - though obviously sisters - had almost no tastes in common. I only found out why this was many years later.

My mother was the one in the family who first read Nancy Mitford's 'Noblesse Oblige', the subtly nasty handbook of 'U' and 'Non-U' usages which haunted every socially insecure home, with its cruel sneers at people who used fish knives and serviettes and phones, and sat in lounges. And she also knew that such things, in a horrible way, really could matter. Which, in the world she'd grown up in, they certainly did. There are some interesting reflections on the destructive stupidity of pre-1939 snobbery in Nevil Shute's rather moving novel 'Landfall', drawn from the life. Shute, himself upper upper middle class, hated this sort of thing, and eventually went off to Australia to avoid it.

I don't think these things really matter any more, outside a tiny, shrivelling part of this country. But they still survived then. And, though we had a free pass into the lower edges of the upper middle class thanks to my father's naval rank, which provided a virtual certificate proving he was a gentleman, we had to be pretty careful if we wandered much further up the treacherous mountainside of the English class system. One false step and you could go slithering all the way to the bottom again.

Once you fell among people with country homes, or (in those other days) who went on skiing holidays, or referred to Eton as 'school' and the Foreign Office as 'the Office', you needed to be very well-briefed indeed to survive. I remember, when I first went to work at Westminster in the early 1980s, that were still a few really heavy swells to whom the pitfalls of class were important (Julian Critchley, some years earlier, had a wonderful telling-off from such a swell when he was detected wearing suede shoes in the Commons, very nearly a felony in the late 1950s).
I came to view it all as an enormous joke, which was easy enough in the cultural revolution and afterwards. Now I have mixed feelings about it. There ought to be a code of manners which governs relations between people who have wholly different lives, and allows all of them to feel proud of who they are and reasonably content. We aren't all the same and there's no point pretending we are, though that absolutely doesn't mean that anyone is better than anyone else - except at what he or she does.

The armed forces, which are mainly run by the working class and lower-middle-class NCOs but find upper-class officers useful for certain simple, basic tasks, are the perfect example of a system where everybody is pretty happy where he is, and badges of rank aren't necessarily a sign of real status.

There's a disturbing recognition of this need to feel contented where you are in the sleep-teaching of the separate classes in Huxley's 'Brave New World' , where the Gammas are taught to dislike the idea of being a Beta, and the Deltas to dislike the idea of being a Gamma. Horrible, you think. And then you think a little further and see that, horrible as it is, it might be better than a lifetime of pointless bitterness.

Which is where meritocracy comes in. In 'Brave New World' your class is decided at birth by the amount of alcohol they put in your gestation jar. Here, as England has proved with examples from Cardinal Wolsey to Ernest Bevin or Roy Jenkins or Alan Bennett, you can be born the son of a butcher and rise to the very summit of whichever mountain you choose to climb, and to hell with worrying about what to call serviettes and lounges. There's an interesting contrast there between Bevin and Roy Jenkins. Both started as the sons of working class homes. (Though Jenkins's father was a union official and later an MP, whereas nobody even knows who Bevin's father was). Both rose to the summit of power. Both were formidably intelligent and cunning. But Bevin couldn't have cared less about his background whereas Jenkins rather significantly managed to lose all traces of his, so everyone was astonished to find that he was a miner's son. Here's an amusing example of this difference. Both came to love fine wine, when they discovered that power gave them the chance to drink it. But while Jenkins could wrap his mellifluous tongue round the names of French vineyards, Bevin to the end of his days would call for a bottle of Nuits St George by demanding "A Bottle of Newts".

I say: "You can rise" but the miserable truth is that since about 1965, you mostly cannot. Our great social mobility, outside Northern Ireland, is in the past, which is perhaps why there is once again so much bitterness about this. There was a fear that a meritocracy would make people unhappy because everyone left at the bottom of the pile would feel they actually deserved this fate. I doubt it. Sensible people don't spend too much time on such things, and a free country with plenty of space for private life allows any man or woman to live life pretty fully. Much worse is the feeling of being unjustly condemned to a life well below your aspirations and your abilities, which comprehensive schools and the dilution of exams have created. We've explored this subject in detail on this site, and I really don't think the defenders of the comprehensive revolution have done very well.