NS Essay - 'The myth of the chattering classes was the product of a Thatcherite populism that aimed to short-circuit traditional elites, speaking directly to "ordinary people" '

From Bollinger Bolsheviks to Gaitskell's Frognal set, the suspicion of well-heeled urban radicals ha

New Labour doesn't care for them much. Peter Hain calls them the "dinner-party critics" and the MP Liam Byrne, in a recent Fabian Society paper, gives them the label "urban intellectuals", that pesky minority of anti-Iraq war obsessives who are so out of touch with the mood in the heartlands. For the media, they are the "chattering classes", a term that suggests a cadre of metropolitan, left-liberal professionals with nothing better to do than twitter on about the country's problems at posh dinner parties, detached from the realities of political power and the aspirations of ordinary people.

From Bollinger Bolsheviks to Hugh Gaitskell's "Frognal set", suspicion of well-heeled urban radicals has a long history. In the 1960s, Peter Simple's Daily Telegraph column began sati-rising the voguish left-wing causes of fictional Hampstead intellectuals such as Deirdre Dutt-Pauker, who fired off daily letters to the Guardian from Marxmount, her white mansion on the Heath. But even then Hampstead was becoming too expensive for young middle-class lefties and the caricature was already dated.

The "chattering classes" are the more specific by-product of the gentrification of other areas of London over the past few decades. The phrase was invented in the early 1980s by the right-wing journalist Frank Johnson and popularised by his friend Alan Watkins. It was meant to signify a certain type of middle-class urban pioneer who had moved into run-down parts of Islington and Camden in the 1960s and 1970s, but was now settling in areas further afield such as Hackney and Stoke Newington. Watkins maintained that "a teacher in Brynamman could still be a member of the chattering classes provided he or she could find a kindred soul with whom to chatter". As a media invention, though, the chattering classes have remained exclusively metropolitan, near to the centre of power without being part of it. It has taken devolution, for example, to create an alternative myth of a Scottish chattering class around Kirsty Wark's social circle in Glasgow's West End.

Johnson and Watkins identified a coalescence of lifestyle and political values among these gentrifiers. They developed their own distinctive styles of interior design, cuisine and networking as a way of making sense of their decision to move to down-at-heel areas and of shoring up the value of their houses. The adjective "chattering" derives from the favoured social gathering of the gentrifiers: the dinner party. One of the first acts in the middle-class refurbishment of dilapidated Georgian properties was to knock through the dividing walls downstairs, so that the kitchen became the main eating area as well as the social hub of the home. The esprit de corps that developed among the gentrifiers fostered new kinds of neighbourliness. The urban middle classes had "a few friends round for a meal" rather than a formal dinner party with several courses.

Because these urban pioneers were often members of the cultural professions - writers, journalists, academics and television producers - gentrification itself became a topic to chatter about in the media. Many of the gentrifiers were left-wing, which partly explained their willingness to settle in poorer areas, but also made them worry about pricing locals out of the housing market. They used their influence as opinion- formers to comment on the process with a mix of guilt and self-satire. In his 1966 TV sketch show On the Margin, Alan Bennett, a Camden resident, incorporated a quasi-soap opera called "Streets Ahead: life and times in NW1". Its characters were achingly trendy left-wing couples - Joanna and Simon Stringalong, and Nigel and Jane Knocker-Threw - whose lives consisted of a series of self-generated ethical dilemmas, such as whether to send their children to private school, and what to do when their Swedish au pair became pregnant. They always resolved their quandaries with a tortuous blend of moral posturing and self-justification.

In 1969, Bennett moved to Gloucester Crescent, a star-studded Camden street populated by cultural figures such as George Melly, Alice Thomas Ellis and Jonathan Miller. Mark Boxer, a fellow resident, recycled Bennett's characters for a cartoon strip, The Stringalongs, in which the characters simply exchanged apercus about their self-consciously edgy lifestyles. ("Darling, something rather flattering has happened. We've been burgled.")

Posy Simmonds's cartoon about middle-class north London life, which appeared on the Guardian women's page between 1977 and 1987, offered a more sympathetic but still incisive portrait of the chatterers. Its main characters - George Weber, a polytechnic lecturer in liberal studies, and his wife, Wendy, a children's author - were archetypal "Guardian readers", now shorthand for the well-intentioned but ethically bemused middle classes. Simmonds's creations decamped at weekends to Tresoddit on the north Cornish coast, a fictional version of the small fishing villages that became second-home retreats for middle-class Londoners during the Thatcher years. It was an opportunity to satirise the moral contortions by which they justified pricing locals out of the housing market.

The Webers combined painstaking self-questioning with subtle assertions of their class identities. They were less self-confident than the Stringalongs, often looking back nostalgically to their radical student days and fearing that they would soon be relics. With a mixture of self-pity and social concern, Wendy worried that "the lights are going out all over the welfare state" and that "woolly liberals" such as herself would suffer "an agonisingly slow death . . . we get moth-eaten".

The valedictory tone reflected an important historical shift. The demonisation of the chattering classes began in the Thatcher years, at precisely the time that Simmonds's well-meaning lefties were losing power and influence. In 1985, the journalist Richard North invented a new stereotype, an inverted yuppie called the "Drabbie". Drabbies were "deliberate and voluntary proles" who dressed shabbily and were consumed with indignation about the Thatcherite "cuts". They were left-leaning teachers, social workers and council officers who bought houses in up-and-coming areas but were fearful of the working class, "tearing down the lace curtains of a poor neighbourhood to make way for the macrame of Drabbitat". Yet North's caricature was already being overtaken by the house-price boom. By the mid-1980s, not many social workers could afford houses in Islington.

The myth of the chattering classes was the product of a Thatcherite populism that aimed to short-circuit traditional elites, speaking directly to "ordinary people" - the lower middle-class, suburban folk who were now seen as the key swing voters in elections. An enduring theme of political rhetoric since the 1980s has been this valuing of common sense over the airy-fairy ideas of metropolitan intellectuals. But as the historian Harold Perkin argues in The Rise of Professional Society, there has actually been a shift in power not in favour of "ordinary people", but away from the old professions and towards new economic elites. For Perkin, Thatcherism provided a pretext for the triumph of the private sector over the public sector professionals who had dominated British society since the war - the same liberal intelligentsia that Thatcher blamed for decades of national decline and mismanagement. The dismissal of the chatterers, and the accompanying celebration of the homely virtues of Middle England, obscured this more significant political struggle.

The Shiraz-quaffing classes are now seen as culturally influential but politically irrelevant. In the changed political landscape of the post-Thatcher era, bad faith is a greater wrong than social injustice. Since everyone is presumed to be out for their own interests, any attempt to engage with issues outside one's immediate area of concern can be dismissed as radical-chic affectation. This anti-intellectual judgement has just enough basis in the historical realities of urban gentrification to hit home.

To be fair, new Labour is not nearly so rude about the "urban intellectuals". Liam Byrne is kind enough to point out that they are "good people" who are "well-informed, big-hearted - but small in number" (which is to say, not worth courting for votes). Under new Labour's managerialism, however, policies have less political content or meaning to be debated or chattered about; they are simply neutral agents of pre-agreed aims. As the Blairite slogan puts it, "what matters is what works" - and when there is work to be done, the most shameful thing to be is a mere chatterer.

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University. His book Reading the Everyday is published by Routledge