"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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue