Reading from afar about the furore generated by the Laura Spence affair fills me with relief that I left England five years ago and don't have to endure any more of these bogus spats over class. The facts hardly matter on such occasions - really, it's a sort of ritualised quadrille that the English like to go through, full of rehearsed self-righteousness, rehearsed indignation and rehearsed recrimination. But since I was a tutor at Magdalen College for 26 years, I am in a good position to know how grotesque the initial row was. John Stein, the college's senior medic, is a man of progressive views and, despite being a Wykehamist, of warm human feeling. He was always to the fore in trying to increase the number of comprehensive pupils in his intake. Indeed, Stein and I once went on a sort of pilgrimage round the comprehensives of Dagenham and Barking, speaking to endless meetings of pupils and parents about how much we wanted to broaden our intake. I was a working-class kid, and spent my early years in a house overlooking the Mersey docks; I realised with some amusement that, with that background, it would have been a dead cinch to get into Magdalen to read medicine had I wanted to.
It is, indeed, ironic that the Laura Spence row centres on Magdalen. Many of my colleagues were deeply conscious of how snobbish the college had once been under Sir Herbert Warren who, as the college biography put it, was a lover of "intellectual and social distinction". It was his habit to greet every incoming freshman: when the Imperial Prince of Japan arrived, Warren asked him what his name, Prince Chichibou, actually meant. "The Son of God," the young scion replied. "Of course," replied Warren. "You'll find we have the sons of many famous men here at Magdalen." Most of us were keen to put the Warren days as far as possible behind us.
The problem with Oxford is not just that it occupies an extremely sensitive and powerful place in Britain's social structure, but that, to an even greater degree, it holds sway within its social and cultural imagination. It is impossible to imagine that one could have a huge public argument over how five places - five, for God's sake - get allocated in any other educational institution. What the English don't realise is how unbelievably trivial and ingrown such preoccupations seem to others. This is, after all, no longer the 19th century: Oxbridge graduates are not going out to rule the world. They're just reasonably well educated people in a smallish country that ranks 15th in the world's per capita income tables - quite a bit behind Ireland, let alone Singapore.
These facts, however, have no power compared to that of the social imagination. Perhaps the most revealing incident in my time came with the great campaign to make sure that Margaret Thatcher did not get an honorary degree from Oxford. When this succeeded, some of those dons who had campaigned for her went into virtual paroxysms of anger and upset, and a group of them at Hertford College wrote a grovelling public apology to the lady in terms so self-abasing as virtually to merit clinical attention. Examining the prose, one realised that something special was going on here: had the other side lost, there would have been none of the same intensity.
And then you realised that the issue had polarised two different sorts of community. On the majority side stood professional aca-demics who cared most about what their peers at Stanford or Yale were doing. They voted against Thatcher on professional grounds - she had been bad for education, had thinned their ranks, cut their laboratory budgets and so on. On the other side stood people for whom a job at Oxford had had social cachet; it meant the modern equivalent of being the tutor in the lord's house, it connected you organically to the ruling classes and, even if only in the permanent capacity of poor relations, they liked that. And there was no surer way of severing that tie than by humiliating the leader of the Tory party. Their pain at losing the vote was certainly real, but it was only indirectly about Thatcher. They grovelled because they feared being symbolically barred from the lord's house. In their eyes, if that happened then their careers, even their lives, had lost a key social meaning. They would be no better than academics anywhere else.
One should not over-egg the matter - two-thirds were on the other side, after all - but one realised that some of these feelings were shared, albeit more shallowly, by many of the winners, too. And these feelings came out on other occasions as well. Every so often, there would be a formal university procession and, to my astonishment, I would see normally sensible colleagues don gowns and mortar boards, parading themselves down the High Street in medieval flummery, enjoying the respectful gaze of the townies and tourists. This was a legitimised way of enjoying the social cachet of their jobs, and it had a strong class element to it. Or again, one was staggered to see friends and colleagues happily accepting knighthoods or peerages even though they knew this was all nonsense, too.
Naturally, the English way of doing this was to affect to despise it all or to say it's a harmless bauble, so why not accept it - an attitude generally belied by a tremendous keenness to "earn" such honours. Many did not even understand quite why such things were so offensive to the egalitarian conscience, why they would have no place in most other modern societies. Honours are universal, but what is different is the medieval title, the pretence to a higher social order which has to be recognised not only by changing one's appellation to Lord or Sir, but even by changing one's wife's appellation to Lady. Even if you win the Nobel prize, they don't change your name, let alone your wife's. Gone, unhappily, is the Tawney tradition: all the former SDP leadership - who claimed to admire Tawney so much - now have titles, apparently not realising how utterly he abominated them. Tawney, faced with a guest at High Table called Sir Arthur Cholmondley-Withers, pulled up a chair and said: "Have a seat Mr Withers." The latter furiously insisted: "Cholmondley-Withers, if you please!" Whereupon Tawney pulled up another chair: "Have two seats then."
The thing that made one cringe most of all was a royal visit. Other-wise sensible men and women became red-faced with excitement at meeting the Queen. I remember once being in the same (large) room as Prince Charles, and colleagues being scandalised if one carried on a normal conversation with someone else or, horrors, allowed one's back to be turned to him. All this is deeply bogus and we know it. Tom Nairn once wrote feelingly about the "bitter, medicine-pill misery" of having to contemplate "the grotesquerie of the gartered Callaghan". There's no point arguing about these things. You either understand that sentiment or you don't.
I make these points about my former Oxford colleagues, but they were no different from most English folk. The reason why this is all bogus is that there is a deeply ingrained inegalitarianism within English culture which not merely tolerates class divisions, but loves them, is endlessly titillated by the upstairs-downstairs world of it all. Things couldn't go on as they do if this were not so. Anyone who thinks about the matter seriously for five minutes knows that you can't repair the inequali-ties of class endlessly reproduced by the savagely unequal school system by bullying Oxford academics into non-meritocratic selection. It's the wrong end of the sausage machine to start. To do anything serious, you have to start with school education, which, since you can't outlaw private education, can be done only by making state schools better. Which means a lot more effort and money: over to you, Chancellor Brown.
But equally, if people such as Gordon Brown are serious about not liking class divisions, they surely know that they have to stop awarding peerages, to abolish the Lords altogether and at least diminish the monarchy in importance, and preferably abolish it. That the latter is not practical politics merely shows how much the English, whatever they may say when it suits them, treasure their inequalities in practice. Can Brown even put his hand on his heart and say he will never be Lord Brown?
All this I am so glad to be rid of. In the end, England began to seem like an endless procession of Merchant Ivory films, a country in love with a class-ridden past which it would endlessly recreate and then go into rehearsed frenzies over. We all know that there will be more spats like the Spence one, that there's a never-ending series of such quadrilles to be danced and that the parochial world of English class will continue, because so many people are fascinated by it and want it to go on, while others enjoy railing against it - although they never do anything serious about it.
Both sides need one another. In the end, it's just childish. If only the country would grow up. It really could be a new, young country then, but being real adults means taking full responsibility for oneself, means accepting membership of the community as full and equal citizens, not subjects. It means, in a word, being ready to leave home at last - and it's far from clear that the English are ready for that.
R W Johnson now lives in South Africa