Still a class thing

As part of our series looking at the issue of class and 'poshness' in 2007, we ask the Head Master o

I am drawn to quizzes, but then I am a teacher. So I could not resist the on-line posh test: answer the questions and see how posh you are. Some of the questions were what one might expect (“Do you know anyone called Rupert?”) and some were a reflection on modern living (“Does your family eat an evening meal together at the dinner table?”). Some others were confusing: “Do you keep your carrier bags?” Is this economic prudence or re-cycling, I wonder?

At the end of it I discover I am 50% posh – I read books, but I don’t go hunting – and I feel strangely dislocated. The questions seemed to cancel each other out. The notion of “poshness”, it seems, is a slippery thing.

I was always told that the word derived from the Port-Out-Starboard-Home ticket for the privileged few on sea voyages. Yet the shipping lines, apparently, never had such an order. It is as if the word came into being to describe a rather vague idea of privilege or social style and its meaning has become even more diffuse with the passing of the years. Posh is as posh is seen.

There is, though, a particularly British angle on this. Americans also use the word “posh” but it tends to describe objects – the sumptuous furnishings of an apartment, the styling of a car. The British use the word of things, too, but also of people. It is a class thing. Even after all this time. Even when society is a complex, shifting set of relationships.

Much of the language of “poshness” seems tired and dated, a lame joke or lazy mud-slinging, the knee-jerk “toff” taunt, but insofar as it draws attention to attitudes and pricks bubbles of complacency it has a purpose and can be inventive. The idea that elective caesareans have become a lifestyle choice for convenience, for example, is succinctly encapsulated in the phrase “too posh to push”.

Yet, strangely, the language is not entirely negative. The word is used kindly to describe a friend’s glamorous choice of clothes or a celebratory night out.

I spend a great deal of my time with teenagers, in my own school and in many other places I visit. For many of them the word doesn’t really register – it is one of those quirks of historic language that float by them. For those for whom the word does have meaning, the responses are predictably mixed..

Some see posh in the narrow sense an eighteenth century critic might have viewed Society, all style and accent. Some of those described in this way will play it up for all it is worth, largely because it feels racy and politically incorrect. Most use the word to define a position. I well recall a bright 16 year old who saw virtue in being avowedly un-posh. He liked the rough and tumble of debate and exchanging ideas. It came as a shock to him to meet people of his own age who saw his attitude as, well, posh. It is a fact that for many teenagers reading the New Statesman is seriously posh.

Posh is “other”, not the normal. It may be attractive and beyond us, or it may be pretentious and ridiculous, but, in any event, it is not really where we see ourselves.

Does any of this matter? On one level, not a lot - banter finds many forms. But it matters a great deal when young people limit their horizons by dismissing experiences and possibilities – art forms, ideas, different people, an examined and enriched life. Having the self-confidence to experiment and to engage, to see beyond the stereotype, is a telling mark of a good education.

Read more from our series looking at the issue of class and 'poshness'

Tony Little was educated at Eton and Cambridge. He taught at Tonbridge and Brentwood before becoming Headmaster of Chigwell School in 1989. Seven years later he became Headmaster of Oakham, a large co-educational boarding and day school. In September 2002, he took up his post as Head Master of Eton College.
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times