Jamie Oliver: the “god of class mobility”? Chris Jackson/Getty
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If you hate Jamie Oliver, you might just be a snob

Do you dislike Jamie Oliver because you’re ideologically opposed to his pasta dishes, or is it because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life pisses you off?

I love Jamie Oliver. I love his watchability, his food, his brand. The coffee they sell in the Recipease up the road from me is delightful. I had a very nice pastry from there once. Sometimes, I wish my life could be tinted to a high-contrast colour scheme to resemble a 30 Minute Meals episode.

As if my deep affection towards the icon of Jamie was causing me to see him everywhere, he recently popped up in a Grayson Perry exhibition I attended called “The Vanity of Small Differences”. Among the vivid, detailed and intelligent social portraits exploring the fine lines between the different classes and their tastes, I clocked one image that stayed with me. In the top left of a tapestry was Jamie Oliver, the “god of class mobility”.

It stuck in my mind because I found it hilarious. I laughed. Knowingly. Isn’t that funny har har Jamie Oliver the god of class mobility har. Those foolish people who thought they could transport themselves into the throes of middle class stardom, just because they had a Jamie Oliver pepper grinder! How silly.

I continued around the exhibition, unaware of my own sneering snobbery. I just felt smug that I had understood what Grayson Perry was getting at. Surrounded by art that drew attention to the performance of class distinctions, all I could muster in terms of self-awareness was a sense of growing hunger and thoughts about whether I could get a Perry postcard after the exhibition.

Perry’s depiction of Oliver as the face of social mobility is emblematic of the snobbery people harbour for the chef. The humour of this is lies in that Jamie is far too earnest for the educated middle class – his emotional investment in getting rid of childhood obesity, and the way he honestly believes that people can cook healthy and filling meals in 15 minutes, both lack that telling self-deprecating self-awareness that the “educated” middle classes have. To put it bluntly, he’s too stupid, in middle class terms, to be middle class. This is why it’s funny to those who deride and mock Jamie for being an aspiration to the lower middle class – because really, he’s not middle class enough.

That’s not to say that all middle class people dislike Jamie Oliver; he exudes a rustic farmers’ market aesthetic that is coveted by the bourgeois classes. Indeed, doing a bit of research on Jamie reveals a line that epitomises his comfortable fit into a middle class lifestyle. “It might sound a bit mad,” Oliver has said, “but a solid bit of driftwood makes for a perfect chopping board, the kind you’d pay a small fortune for in a department store.” Amazing.

Deconstructing middle class signifiers is a struggle. Often it’s because they’re intangible. There aren’t rigid rules. And that’s sort of the point. The harder it is to define a middle class culture, the harder it is to enter it. Of course, Jamie Oliver could easily afford the department store Driftwood Chopping Board, but that would be far too obvious. Instead, he must individually select uniquely decayed bits of wood to garnish his home with. The proud middle classes would find it difficult to tell you what middle class culture actually was. This only compounds their advantage: the harder it is to define, the harder it is for those people you don’t want being part of it, to be part if it.

Middle class taste is self-righteously obsessed with a myth of effortless bourgeois consumerism – as if to give off the impression one has simply stumbled upon one’s £150 Le Creuset pot down the road, instead of ordering it off the John Lewis website. Condescension towards Jamie Oliver is couched in that focus on the intangible – a hatred stemming from the idea that the working classes think they capture this fleeting and ethereal middle class-ness, just because they’ve bought a Jamie Oliver™ Pestle and Mortar. In the 18th century, it was all about scoffing at the French for creating gardens that looked too perfect; now we just scoff at the working class for having middle class aspirations about their oil dispenser, and houses that are a little too clean.

Next time you feel yourself hating on Oliver, step back and take another look. Do you dislike him because you’re ideologically opposed to pasta dishes, or is it just because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life – and is selling them on – pisses you off? Sure, it’s utterly consumerist, but Jamie Oliver capitalises on something that most of us struggle to define: transforming a desire to better yourself morally and culturally into a cast-iron griddle pan. That, I think, is at least something to admire.

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood