The countrywoman: Clarissa Dickson-Wright at a hare coursing event in 2004. (Photo: Getty)
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Clarissa Dickson-Wright: a toff and proud of it

The TV chef and countryside campaigner Clarissa Dickson-Wright, best known as one half of the Two Fat Ladies, has died aged 66. In 2007, she kicked off a series for the NS looking at class and “poshness”.

Despite having been rigorously taught never to assume I had fallen into that trap with the word “toff”, believing, as most people do, that it was a negative description derived from the term “toffee nosed”, ie someone grand and snooty with their nose stuck in the air to avoid smelling the odours of the masses.

I have cause to be grateful to the New Statesman as, in order to understand the word better, I was driven to the pages of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang.

Toff, this tome reveals, is an early 19th-century word meaning an aristocrat, and by the mid 19th century had come to mean a generous benefactor.

“You're a toff, sir”, was a compliment – an acknowledgement of thanks for a favour received. Do not be misled in thinking this has anything to do with “toffee-nosed”, I read , this is a 1940s expression so chronologically “toff” cannot be a derivation.

That toff has now become a derogatory term is one of those curious quirks of the English language but there can be no doubt than in modern terminology it is not intended to be a pleasantry.

It is a phrase beloved of the media and is used, as is common to the tabloids, with no consistency in its application.

For example, David Cameron is frequently referred to as a toff; true, he did go to Eton and Oxford and even though he has lived for years at the less fashionable end of Ladbroke Grove and was formerly employed in media relations, not an obvious profession for toffs, he may well qualify.

Then why not Tony Blair who was educated at Fettes (often referred to as the Eton of Scotland) and Oxford, is a qualified barrister and owns a house in the much more up market area of Connaught Square? The square even boasts its own hunt “the Connaught Square Squirrel Hunt”, though I have yet to receive confirmation that our Tone has joined.

During the Two Fat Ladies years, Jennifer and I were frequently referred to as toffs, rather mysteriously I thought, as I am a child of the professional middle classes. Doctors of medicine on one side and mining engineers on the other. No land-owning aristocrats in sight and Jennifer was the product of a Dundee Jute family – “Trade, my dear,” as she would have put it.

Neither of us was rich or even owned a house and we had both worked for years as “cooks” and even, in that capacity, as domestic servants. I decided that it must refer to our accents: we were both educated privately and spoke with the clear, precise tones of the upper-middle classes. But then so, of course. does Tony Blair.

Maybe it is a question of politics. One cannot be a toff and a socialist perhaps? Then, of course, one must remember Tony is not a socialist, so the mystery continues.

The English class system is something of a curiosity and it doesn’t matter how many prime ministers declare that it no longer exists, it is rooted like ground elder under the stones of our very existence.

It is an upward sliding scale: if you make enough money you can join, your children will go to public schools and if the money hasn’t been squandered by the third generation, your descendents will be toffs.

It is even a sought-after status. I remember the wife of a very successful self-made man, who had gone from grandson of an agricultural labourer and son of a smallholder to multi-millionaire. She wistfully listened to Johnny Scott (my co-star in the TV series Clarissa and the Countryman) and remarked “Wouldn’t it be lovely if our grandchildren spoke like that?”.

Maybe outside the media, the 19th-century interpretation of “toff” remains. It would seem, however, that the scale cannot slide downwards.

I remember that aged 40, a single female, an orphan, latterly employed as a servant, newly recovering from alcoholism and destitute, I was told by the Housing Authorities that they were not there for the likes of me and that I should go and get a job. I am enduringly grateful to them for this and wish they said it to more people but presumably it was because of my toff accent.

There was an occasion when I was appearing on the Clive Anderson chat show when I was attacked by a Labour MP as a toff. There was no doubt in my mind that I had spent more of my life getting my hands dirty and working till my feet ached than this freeloader on the nation’s bounty.

I demanded to know how, as a fat cook, I could be a toff and eventually he backed down. In an era when the term “working class” seems more and more to refer to people on the dole, I find myself completely at a loss to identify why this epithet should be hurled at someone like myself who works incredibly hard.

Perhaps the biggest example of the word’s misuse was over the Hunting Act, vaunted as a statute against animal cruelty, wasting many hours of parliamentary time and money eventually passed via the Parliament Act.

The MPs then stated that it had nothing to do with the fox, deer or hare but was a blow against toffs and was all about class. This showed two things clearly, firstly that the MPs had never bothered to go hunting or coursing – the most egalitarian of country pursuits – and, secondly, that the class system is alive, well and living in Westminister on the benches of the Labour Party.

Having written this, I have decided to accept the label, to regard it strictly in the mid-19th-century term and to ask all those regardless of race, creed, colour or class who see themselves as trying to stand up for their principles and benefit the world to proudly bear the epithet TOFF.

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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