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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle