If you want to climb the social ladder, get a Queen Mum-sized overdraft
When my editor was at Sussex University some time ago, he shared a house with two privately educated boys from rich families. He noted that while he, a state-educated son of a works manager and a school kitchen assistant, by dint of Herculean self-restraint (no LPs or snazzy little MG) kept resolutely out of debt, his two flatmates always had an overdraft. Indeed, wearing the life-owes-me-a-living smile that labels a toff as surely as a signet ring, the trustafarians asked to borrow money from him.
Poor Master Wilby's bewilderment at this state of affairs betrayed his ignorance of the class take on money. Consider the Queen Mum and her £4 million overdraft. Her "stylish extravagance" - five royal homes, two chauffeurs, two maids, not to mention helicopters - has landed Ma'am in the red. Yet neither her bankers, Coutts, nor the Queen Mum, see any cause for concern. This shoulder-shrugging insouciance regarding the grubby little matter of an overdraft is testament not just to the Queen Mum's assets (£26 million), but also to the indifference that the upper and middle classes share for being in debt.
For the young Wilby, an overdraft would have meant dishonouring his father's name and a very real crisis: penury would have been but a few guineas away. For his moneyed friends, instead, "being broke" was just a cash-flow problem: there might be no money in the current or savings accounts but, if things really got hairy, the trust that pater had set up at their birth could be relied on to cough up the necessary money.
This is exactly how the upper classes are supposed to behave. Historically, toffs often mortgaged and remortgaged their estates in order to repay gambling debts or a bad investment in some new-fangled crop.
The middle classes, on the other hand, were more reluctant to incur debt. When they came into their own in Victorian times, thrift was a household god and everyone sang from the "you don't live beyond your means" songsheet. For those who departed from this scrupulous book-keeping and slipped into profligate ways the final destination was, until 130 years ago, the debtor's prison.
As for the working classes, they equated being in debt with indentured service; to be in the red was a humiliating status that involved trips to pawn shops or visits by bailiffs.
This class-conscious attitude to debt is manifest in press coverage of the royal overdrafts - the Queen Mum can do no wrong, so she was exonerated even by the Mirror ("she deserves a lavish life"). But her ex-granddaughter-in-law, Fergie, became the butt of lower- and middle-class prejudice against debtors when she racked up her £3 million of debts.
Other areas of national life are equally coloured by our class attitude to money. Their reluctance to be in debt keeps many working-class people from engaging in business schemes: they view the necessary risk-taking as far too dangerous, while the budding entrepreneur from the middle and upper class is bolder in taking a chance. Her courage is likely to be rewarded, my bank manager explained, with a better rate: as low as 8.25 per cent if she (or her family) has sufficient assets - as opposed to 15 per cent for those whose financial status is less rosy.
The recent brouhaha over student loans also highlighted the class divide on dosh. A number of university students (and academics) argued against the new system, maintaining that it would turn off working-class students, who had been taught that being in debt carried a heavy social stigma.
The middle classes long ago buried their prejudices against overdrafts and now borrow as lustily as the Queen Mum. In Tony Blair's brave new middle-class Britain, any surviving members of the working class must get over their prejudices, too, and get on their bikes to the bank and borrow.