Heirs, spares and chairs: the Fulford family, stars of BBC3's Life is Toff. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Inside Tatler, Life is Toff and British TV’s troubling obsession with all things posh

Call me a lefty conspiracy theorist if you must, but it has not escaped my notice that the trend for posh porn has coincided with the term of the poshest government in living memory.

It’s 2014 and posh people are everywhere. Anyone who’s given the British media even a cursory glance recently would be forgiven for assuming that the majority of the British public were living out their existences with their finely bred noses buried in leather-bound copies of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners, plums planted firmly in their mouths (that is, when their gilded gobs are not otherwise occupied with eating a pear in the correct fashion, using a silver spoon). Television in particular has been going posh mad for some time now, and with tonight’s premier of new BBC documentary Posh People: Inside Tatler, the obsession with the high born shows no sign of abating. In an inversion of the well-established phenomenon of “poverty porn” (see Benefits Street), programmes such as this are “posh porn”, offering plebs like us a glimpse into this highly exclusive world of red trousers, farting black Labradors, crumbling castles whose foundations are weaker than the chins that inhabit them, and general tomfoolery including such larks as side-saddle racing (Inside Tatler) and the torturing of siblings with air rifles (Life is Toff).

I confess that I was ignorant of the favourite pastimes of the upper classes until I got to university and became aware that old Harrovians turning up to lectures in togas was seen (if only by the participants) as “top banter”. Made in Chelsea, which features someone I went to university with, is now in its eighth series and, in three short years, has managed to exceed even its own aspirations of deathly dullness to become a kind of Groundhog Day of Shags involving endless, circuitous conversations centred purely around who did who and when. It truly is the Twilight Zone of toffs. Downton Abbey, meanwhile, limps on like the decrepit dog who was the show’s most three-dimensional character until it died of cancer in a recent episode. It has become so tedious that when an ITV Player glitch froze Thomas the Evil Butler motionless in a downstairs corridor, I failed to notice for several minutes. This must surely be the only programme where the line, “I’m going upstairs to take my hat off” is considered welcome comic relief.

At least, I suppose, the posh are having fun this time. The slightly batty ancient dowager that was the society magazine Tatler has, under the editorship of Kate Reardon, gone from being a magazine that I used to hate reading as a student to a witty, satirical Sloane-fest that I now rather enjoy. Granted, Tatler’s recent video featuring an enraging array of poshos waving their arms about and mouthing the words to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” during the magazine’s Little Black Book party is an argument for class war if ever I saw one. As a sage Twitter commentator noted, it is “interesting if only as proof that a sense of rhythm can in fact be eliminated over centuries of selective breeding”. Still, it beats seeking out a tramp for the sole purpose of setting fire to a £50 note in front of him – an alleged recent activity of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, alma mater of Boris, Dave and Gideon.

Call me a lefty conspiracy theorist if you must, but it has not escaped my notice that the trend for Posh Porn has coincided with the term of the poshest government in living memory. The working class heroes of Britpop who dominated the cultural climate under the Major and Blair governments are now but nostalgic items of memorabilia for a generation who were hardwired to believe that one could be posh, or cool, but not both. Russell Brand’s verbosity was mocked by the internet for sounding like the song “Parklife” by Blur. Some, including Brand himself, considered this class snobbery from a condescending metropolitan elite. I do not necessarily disagree with this interpretation, but I do think the fact the point of reference for those unused to seeing a philosophising Cockney on their television screens was a music video made in 1994 says something profound about the wasteland that is our current cultural climate.

“Rich people don’t create culture,” remarked Grayson Perry last week, as he argued for the urgent need for affordable housing – but that is exactly what they are doing, all around us. The past few years have seen a revival of royalist sentiments – the wedding, the Jubilee, the Jesus-like worship of baby Prince George. In September, the Guardian ran a Posh Britain special that included a “How Posh Are You?” quiz. Moneyed heiress Cara Delevigne has overtaken Croydon girl Kate Moss as this year’s – and indeed last year’s and probably next year’s – model. Funny, intelligent shows about working class life such as Shameless, Phoenix Nights, The Royle Family and Gavin & Stacey are no more. Actors and comedians seem to be getting posher and posher, as working-class performers struggle to find work. Reality TV offers up toff after toff; as well as the posh programming already mentioned, shows such as Posh Pawn, You Can’t Get the Staff, Ladies of London, Liberty of London, and even Gogglebox beat us about the chops with the silver hammer of prosperity until we’re left dribbling, comatose and inexplicably craving a Fortnum’s Welsh Rarebit. Last year, I bought a Barbour jacket, having entered John Lewis as if in a trance, an act for which I can only blame the interminable drip-feed of privilege that is delivered to us via the pheasant-stuffed Ocado van that the country’s media has become. And as for the atrocity that is Mumford & Sons, well, everything that can conceivably said about these Lords of the Banjo has already been said.

All these strands of blatant poshness have combined to render the British Media the Chap Olympiad to end all Chap Olympiads (as if it wasn’t posh enough already). If that weren’t bad enough, the British public are being regularly and inhumanely punished – what for, it is unclear – through the medium of the historical country-house documentary. These often focus on the bonkers aristos of yore (including my new favourite dead aristocrat Henry Cyril Paget the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, a man so camp he makes Freddy Mercury look like a tax auditor) as if to say: “Behold, peasants, the current crop of tedious toffs that you are forced to endure are culturally embedded in the very fabric of our society, so get used to it.” All this posh porn is curiously devoid of politics, instead focusing on the adorable foibles and eccentricities of our benign overlords as though they are cuddly cartoon teddy bears too bumbling and lacking in intelligence to constitute any real threat to the majority’s desire to live in a less rampantly unequal society – the Boris Johnson complex. Francis Fulford, the paterfamilias in Life is Toff, is reportedly a Ukip supporter, but as an audience we are never really exposed to his political views. The closest we come to seeing him for the unpleasant snob he shows the potential of being is when he laments how his father sold off a nearby village – a village in which people live – that is now worth millions.

I have no beef with individual posh people (some of my best friends are posh, etc etc) but it does strike me as strange that, less than six months before a general election and at a time when the gap between rich and poor has widened to become a yawning canyon, we are seeing so little of how ordinary people are living, and struggling to get by. We live in a society where a Labour MP in Islington regards the sight of a St George’s flag as “astonishing” – has she been to an estate in our borough recently? It is a society in which people are relying on food banks so as not to starve and a charity exists with the simple purpose of providing homeless and vulnerable children with their very own pair of pyjamas. And yet, we are being force-fed aristocratic programming that, far from being critical, is aspirational. As a nation, our cultural output revolves increasingly around the super rich and how much bloody fun they’re having, while those of us who are not having so much fun are largely ignored. Inside Tatler and Life is Toff may be good for a laugh, but the rich are having the last. This cultural dominance can only end when the current government does. Perhaps then, the disadvantaged will once again be afforded the opportunity to crack their own jokes. Until then, we’ll have to make do with the putting on and taking off of hats. 

This article was amended on November 27.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.