New Times,
New Thinking.

Rishi Sunak and Sky TV have unleashed a class war

The debate over the Prime Minister’s background is a reflection of bourgeois neuroses.

By Ethan Croft

“What did you go without as a child? Can you give me an example?” It seemed that ITV’s interviewer, Paul Brand, would not be satisfied until the Prime Minister had taken off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and pointed out the forearm scars he acquired fixing the factory loom as a child labourer.

The PM has previously responded that, yes he’s wealthy, but that doesn’t matter: it’s about values and policies. To misquote Portia, the quality of empathy is not strained. It appeared to be a manful stand against the American import of backstory politics, in which public figures scramble around for evidence they have struggled, an expectation that leads to much awkward boasting, as with the inevitable Sunak blunder. Against Keir Starmer’s disconnected family telephone, Sunak proffered: “Famously, Sky TV… was something that we never had growing up actually.”

It was a lame claim to poverty. But now, those who seem able to find hidden meanings behind the Prime Minister’s every word and deed are flipping his answer on its head: the Sunaks of Southampton were apparently such inveterate snobs that they disavowed a Sky dish because television is common. The unhelpful fact that young Rishi was raised on a cultural diet of Star Wars and video games is skipped over.

All of this feels a bit unfair. As a class phenomenon, the Prime Minister is a nebula of contradictions. First, he was the child of immigrants who scaled the English class system, working in the NHS and owning a small business before establishing themselves in bourgeois comfort. Then, he bootstrapped himself to institutions of academic excellence and high finance in order to become far richer than his parents. Yet this is all still a bit too nouveau riche. And – worse perhaps in British high society – much of his current wealth comes from his wife’s side of the family, which is about as embarrassing an upstart path as you can take.

No wonder Sunak has endured a mutually uncomfortable relationship with the red-faced bounders and squirearchy of the old Conservative Party. In Richmond, the affluent Yorkshire seat where Sunak succeeded William Hague as MP, his selection was originally seen as a significant moment. He was not just some other fish in the slipstream of Tory selections. Yet still there is the relentless charge against him on right and left that behind the perma-smirk the PM is just an out of touch snob who resents the public, regarding us as stupid and ungrateful.

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A rather thin sheaf of evidence has been marshalled to support this case. At the top of the pile sits a historic television clip of teenage Sunak baulking at the idea of having working-class friends in a documentary about the British class system. But observe his father, the family doctor chuckling along with his son in what looks like a catalogue-order armchair. Yashvir Sunak’s affirmatory laughter tells us the real class story of the Prime Minister. It is a nervous reaction derived from the burnt-rubber snobbery that only the aspirational English bourgeoisie can master. It is unique to a class that is temperamentally insecure, clinging desperately to a rung halfway up the social ladder, fearful of the squalor below, and desperate to climb to safety above. The same might be said of Emily Maitlis and the other well-heeled journalists who view Sky TV as such a telling signifier, generating the strange pantomime of different subsets of the middle class arguing about who is more of a toff.

The strangely hostile reaction to Sunak actually reminds me most of one of our most cack-handed canonical texts: JB Priestley’s polemical play An Inspector Calls. In the world of Priestley’s brittle dramatic conceit, we are supposed to believe that salt-of-the-earth Eva Smith was bullied, preyed upon and driven to an early grave by a family of monocled capitalists. What nonsense in a country where the middle class have long been the most violent class warriors. Even in the 1940s, Priestley’s vision of the class system was anachronistic. Now, it is ridiculous. Yet this play is still force-fed to impressionable schoolchildren through our national curriculum. The animosity towards very wealthy people like Sunak shows that it has had a powerful propagandising effect.

[See also: Royal Mail could become Starmer’s first big headache]

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