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19 July 1999

Beware the trap of the sans-culottes

Avoid toff-baiting, warns Richard Askwith, an old Harrovian: soon it could be you . . .

By Richard Askwith

Any public schoolboy who isn’t completely stupid soon realises that he is hated. It’s not that the jeers from the real world are lobbed at you very frequently, nor that they’re very hurtful when they land. It’s just that you learn to make practical adjustments to your habits to take into account the hostility of thousands of otherwise ordinary people. My lifelong interest in endurance running was developed not on the playing fields of Harrow but during repeated flights from the town up the school’s famous hill, with gangs of local youths, maddened by the sight of my blue blazer, baying for my blood.

At the time, I vaguely imagined that the stigma of being a toff was something that I would shed, along with blazer and idiotic straw hat, when I left at the age of 16. I was wrong. Twenty-three years later, I smell more class hatred in the air, not less.

This may seem a curious observation to make when half the population has just gone gooey over the nuptials of a minor royal, and Tony Blair has just specifically reassured us that his government is there to serve everyone, not just Labour’s “natural” supporters. But specific reassurances from high places usually mean that there is something to worry about, and so there is now: I think of it as the new tribalism.

Phrases such as “middle-class wanker”, “upper-class wally” and “Lord Snooty” – all part of the fun of being British when encountered in everyday life – have become part of the vocabulary of the corridors of power, both among new Labour functionaries and in the wider establishment. They’re used as serious shorthand with which to discredit opposing viewpoints and voices. And, each time they are so used, class hatred becomes a little more institutionalised.

A trace of privilege in the background will soon disqualify you from a major role in the public discourse more surely than a criminal record. Can you imagine an old Etonian succeeding Greg Dyke as director-general of the BBC? Or any ex-public schoolboy succeeding Blair as prime minister? An old Etonian, Geordie Greig, can still get the editorship of Tatler, but could you become the editor of a serious newspaper without the street cred of a Janet Street-Porter? Not in the new Britain I live in.

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The privileged classes have been unfashionable for decades; most of us have found the inconvenience a price worth paying. If being a toff now disqualifies you from power in the same way that being an oik used to, we can hardly complain. I’ve still done pretty well in the lottery of life.

But New Labour’s sans-culottes tendency is setting about the disenfranchisement of toffs with an enthusiasm that is scarcely decent. Some venom is understandable, after nearly 20 years of waiting for another chance to have a go at the Lords (and at the fox-hunters and the privately educated). But are we comfortable to hear our fellow Britons routinely denounced in parliament in such terms as (to pluck two recent examples from Hansard) “hillbilly inbreds” and “historical throwbacks”?

Presumably we are, since it’s routine in new establishment newspapers for the upper classes to be dismissed not just as “toffs” and “twits” but also with pseudo-biological terms such as “inbred” and “retards”. The last time Prince Charles had a go at genetically modified crops, scarcely a cartoonist outside the Telegraph missed the obvious gag that he himself was a genetic “freak” or “mutant”. And what of Jeremy Hardy’s assertion in the Guardian that Britain’s wealthiest people are “loopy old toffs who give the impression of having been in very serious car accidents”?

Oh, I know, toff-baiting isn’t really inflammatory. It’s just good-humoured British banter, which only the humourless can’t take in good spirit (just as only the most humourless black people can’t take a bit of changing-room joshing). But it’s also insidious, because it dehumanises its victims. I was taught (by my middle-class parents, not by my school) that you should never judge people by their origins, only by their actions. And I used to believe that that was how all true liberals felt. But no more.

Not being a true toff myself – I went to Harrow only because we reckoned that it would be easier to get a scholarship if my competitors were mainly inbred toff retards – I can’t say how many of the upper classes are currently trembling in fear of imminent socio-economic cleansing. What I can say is that the class hatred that we currently enjoy directing at the aristocracy is ultimately a threat to millions of people who would never dream of describing themselves as upper class.

Imagine, if you can, a Labour government hell-bent on clinging to power, not averse to character-assassinating its enemies and anxious to increase its old Labour credibility without actually resorting to real old Labour policies. What better than a bit of toff-bashing to restore its standing in the traditional homelands?

But once such a government discovered that laying into the aristo retards played well in the focus groups, do you imagine that it would denounce as toffs only those enemies whose names fill Debrett? I don’t. If you don’t have the approved background – state education, some experience of state housing and a track record in state benefits – your time, too, may have passed.

Tribal hatred gains its potency from its irrationality: if it’s not rational, you can’t argue with it. This is true of class hatred, which is independent of rational emotions such as economic envy. It’s a long time since I worried that I might expose myself to ridicule by making public my bank statements – it’s not fashionable to argue that Britain would be a better place without the moderately well off. It’s the toffs who deserve to be sent packing. Whoever they are. And whatever that means.

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