"Outfitters to the gentry"

Election-determining class dynamics being played out on the high streets of our "university towns"

Putting the more off-the-cuff 2010 predictions to one side for a moment, one thing that we can all be sure about is that political debate this year will keep on returning to the C-word as pre-election battles get down and dirty.

The question now is how both major parties will frame their approach to class. Will either party truly adopt the "class war" line that journalists have been bolting on to both David Cameron's and Gordon Brown's words for the past few months? The Times's political coverage over the Christmas period was dominated by reports of a rift between, first, Mandelson and Brown, then Jack Straw/Tessa Jowell and Brown, and then half the cabinet and Brown, over the Prime Minister's increasingly class-focused approach to oratory -- the "playing fields of Eton", etc.

On Christmas Eve the newspaper suggested:

A Christmas drive to reassure middle-class voters that Labour still supported the better-off was abandoned because of disagreements between Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson. The failure to mount a fightback against Conservative accusations that Labour has abandoned aspiration is the latest sign of tensions between Mr Brown and his most senior minister . . . Mr Brown's use of class-war rhetoric against David Cameron, the Tory leader, has led to concerns that he intends to fight a campaign aimed at shoring up Labour's core vote. Lord Mandelson, who is expected to be in charge of the campaign, is determined to ensure that the party maintains broad appeal.

Then came the Telegraph's suggestion at the end of December that inheritance tax represents "a tax on aspiration, thrift and independence that tends to be paid by people of relatively modest means". And so on.

Whatever official class line Labour and the Tories take in 2010, these so-called "aspirational middle classes" will, it seems, be the ones to watch. Which means that anybody with an interest in the outcome of the general election has a responsibility to start swotting up on what this particular buzz-term actually means: Who are the "aspirational middle classes"? I reckon there's no better place to start such an investigation, particularly during the January sales, than at Jack Wills, "outfitters to the gentry".

It's all too tempting to make fun of the Jack Wills brand, established in 1999, yet willing to place a pheasant wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, together with the words "fabulously British" and "university outfitters", at the heart of its iconography. One might choose to point out the way it edges closer and closer to self-parody with every new collection of clothing titles: "Brickford Striped Henley", anyone? How about a "Breckwood Melton Great Coat"? Or how it seems to encourage its 16-year-old salesgirls to wear Ugg boots, a hoodie, underwear and, um, nothing else while they're working. Or the way it proudly displays on its website a box of pencils, "sold in a branded rigid card case with magnetic snap closure", and costing a full £10.

But to do so is, perhaps, to underestimate the political insight into certain quarters of those all-important aspirational middle classes that the brand provides. Just look at the following exchange, lifted from the Jack Wills website's message board, a (sort of) direct rephrasing of Jack Straw's suggestion that it is "unfair to criticise individuals for something over which they had no control. Most people have little choice over where they go to school":

CEx
i might be being completely unreasonable but does it not really annoy you when people from state schools (nothing against them) come on and moan about us being stuck up and 'mean' to the state school kids. Jack Wills was CREATED for the private sector, sorry but it really bugs me!
x

Katharine
agree with CEx. we can't help it that we have been born into luxury where we don't have to worry about a thing. the only reason they moan is that they are jealous of our lifestyle and secretly they want to be like us!

Hannahbannanah
I went to state school, I am now at a state college. My sister goes to private school. I have nothing against private school people only snobs who think they're better than everyone else because of money.
That annoys me -- besides its far better to act with class regardless of how much money you have.

And then there are the little touches. The website, for example, includes a "lifestyle" section, complete with links to "polo" ("Meet the players!"), "seasonnaires" ("Winter in the Mountains") and, bizarrely, "library", recommending Lady Chatterley's Lover, a "genuine classic which has stood the test of time for the quality of the writing, not for the shock factor approach of today's reality TV 'celebs' ". Most tellingly, the brand's latest venture, a spin-off label "exclusively for the discerning" adult (named Aubin & Wills), features as its logo a top-hatted fox. A fox! What could be more class-war political?

I think the moral of the story is relatively straightforward: fancy winning the election, Gordon and Dave? All you need is an "Oxenford Topcoat", £498 but reduced to a mere £349. It really is as simple as that.

 

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder