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16 January 2010

Why it’s Tory hypocrisy not to talk class

Heath, Thatcher, Major and Howard all played the class card

By Jon Bernstein

A packed lecture theatre, an esteemed panel and a single plea at this lively Fabian Conference session: “Will the real David Cameron please stand up?” Not a chance.

Despite the appearance of three members of the Conservative family on the panel (“comrades”, said a welcoming Gaby Hinsliff) and lots of talk of localism, choice, decentralisation and the “post-bureaucratic state”, there was a failure to convince on the central premise.

More notable was the level of political cross-dressing. Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, confessed surprise at how often she found herself agreeing with her fellow-panellist Polly Toynbee, of the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich and Clacton, came out as a staunch supporter of proportional representation. “I wouldn’t want a monopoly supermarket or cinema in my town, so why would I want a monopoly on MPs?” he asked the audience, which, once it had digested the message, responded with sustained applause. (For the record, his PR method of choice is single transferable vote.)

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Even on class, Dorries declared that it was an issue that “matters more than anything else in British society”. Which puts her somewhat at odds with her leader, the subject of the session.

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It took our host Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society’s general secretary, to get to the nub of the issue and in turn throw some light on the “real” David Cameron.

Katwala asked why talk of class was verboten in 2010. After all, Conservative leaders have long played the class card, from the grammar school boy Ted Heath, to Margaret Thatcher “the grocer’s daughter”, to John Major, whose famous trip down memory lane — or rather down Electric Avenue in Brixton — formed the basis of a party election broadcast — and again, most recently, to Michael Howard, who chided Tony Blair across the despatch box, declaring: “This grammar school boy isn’t going to take any lessons from a public school boy.”

So it was more than a little strange, said Katwala with tongue in cheek, that only now we have an Old Etonian as Tory leader is the question of class off the agenda.

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