The Sunday Times

February 21st, 2010

Public servants wallow at our expense as the new first class

Class is an illness from which this country seems unable to recover. No sooner had new Labour soothed us into feeling better, murmuring that we were all middle class now, than old Labour spread the old infection of class resentment: listen to Gordon Brown’s jibes about the playing fields of Eton and his threats of class-war electioneering. And just as David Cameron tries to persuade us that we are all in this together, an old Tory nincompoop reminds us that we aren’t. We are still in two different compartments.

Sir Nicholas Winterton, the Conservative MP, made an astonishing protest against proposals that MPs should no longer travel first class on trains. His explanations were beyond parody: he said he felt it was quite wrong for MPs to have to travel with the rest of us as it would make it impossible for him to work, and it would put chaps such as him “below” local councillors and local government officials and even, for heaven’s sake, below army majors.

Besides, the rest of us in standard class are “a totally different type of people”. That at least is a relief to my feelings — I wouldn’t want to be at all like Winterton — but his explanations could not fail to irritate. “I didn’t say they weren’t as good, but they are in a different walk of life. They are doing different things. Very often they are there with children.”

Words fail me. The idea that people who cannot afford first-class tickets (or can’t persuade the state to pay for them) belong by definition to the disorderly underclass, and are therefore to be avoided by their rightful masters, is something I thought Conservatives had at least learnt not to express.

There are millions (and I mean millions) of people who are a great deal better educated, more scrupulous and more mannerly than Winterton, who cannot afford first-class tickets and would think it daft to pay for them even if they could. If they, like him, have to work on a train journey, they book a seat in a standard-class quiet carriage. It’s true that there aren’t always enough places in quiet carriages, but perhaps if MPs and similar such luminaries were forced out of their ignorant seclusion, they might realise they ought to do something about train travel.

However, although it took a silly, superannuated Conservative to remind us of all this, what is truly despicable is that Labour is no better. Since 1997 new Labour ducks have taken easily to the waters of state-subsidised privilege, as of right; they are just as keen on paddling round designer duck houses and rabble-excluding moats as any Tory booby. “The many, not the few” — that’s what they claim to stand for.

In fact they’re quite content to let the many do the standing while they themselves sit without a hint of self-reproach in the quiet comfort of first class, both literally and metaphorically. They are not even embarrassed by the phrase.

We have a government — and, more widely than that, a centre-left establishment in the public services — that gives every impression of being obsessed with inequality. We are lectured constantly by new Labour about the evils of social exclusion, the lasting damage done by real inequality, the social malaise that follows social injustice, and the central importance of imposing equality by law — complete with an ambitious Equality Bill. The Conservatives do not disassociate themselves from this rhetoric — quite the reverse.

Yet, over 13 years in office, this same political class has left in place, on the country’s state-subsidised, public-service trains, the astonishing notion of first class — a notion that is an offence against the idea of equality. And (with some honourable exceptions) it is happy to travel first class at the expense of the low-paid and the poor.

Admittedly, there are some people who do need special treatment, for reasons of security or perhaps of sanity — pop stars, the Queen, a few secret agents and the prime minister. Then there are those who just want special treatment and can pay for it out of their own money. But if there is little or no need for special treatment, and if — as with train tickets — the cost-benefit ratio is daft, then there can be no possible reason the taxpayers should bear the expense of it. Equality is, or ought to be, good enough for most people.

I never travel first class (apart from buying an occasional £5 weekend upgrade in the past). But I have often walked through first-class compartments on my way to steerage, wondering what sort of people could afford to sit in them, and I can confirm Winterton’s point that they are stuffed full of public servants who are not paying for their own seats. Local authority workers, BBC apparatchiks, politicians, civil servants and armies of quangocrats are there, squandering vast sums on the tiny advantages that a first-class seat has over a standard quiet seat.

What is so remarkable is the unthinking sense of entitlement. You might have expected it from some of the worst grandees of the past but not, surely, from present-day public servants. Altogether, this is an odd way to carry on for those whose working lives are spent in the aggressive pursuit of equality in every form — through statutory equality agendas, new equality legislation and the mind-numbing equality rhetoric adopted so aggressively by all political parties. First-class rail tickets for dedicated egalitarians are a comic example of cognitive dissonance.

What’s really going on, I think, is that the nature of class war has changed. The old virus has mutated. The old social and political divisions have given way to two new classes — rather as on the trains. Those in economy are most of us, paying for the comforts of those in first class. And those in first class are the new political class — all those who owe their advancement and their security and their pensions and their privileges not to their backgrounds or their talents, or even necessarily their political parties, but to the state and our taxes.

Member of the first class are various, from the Tony Blairs to the Wintertons, but whatever they say about equality, they are in fact united in defence of their right to their privileges and to having their own undemocratic way.

And in his strange cry of complaint Winterton was speaking not just for the old order, but also for the new first class. It is this class that is the new cross-party adversary of the good society, but, just like the old class virus, it will be hard to fight.