The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 6th, 2009

Toff-baiting, the dangerous sport that will hurt you too

‘Will you join me,” Sir George Young (Con) asked the Rt Hon Harriet Harman (Lab) in the Commons last week, “in condemning the prime minister for launching a class war against those with aristocratic connections who were educated at a public school?” Answer, not surprisingly, came there none. For Ms Harman has aristocratic connections and was educated at a leading public school. She was therefore in an awkward spot: if she, with her toff cred, has been found acceptable at the highest levels of a Labour government, it is hard to see why that same toff cred must make David Cameron unfit for high office, as Gordon Brown sneeringly suggested last week. She wisely ducked the issue and sat down. The rest of us, however, are not obliged to duck the issue. We can join in condemning Brown for trying, with his demented smirk, to let slip the dogs of class war. He may well fail, as he did in Labour’s ludicrous by-election campaign last year at Crewe and Nantwich, when party activists in top hats and tails mocked the Tory candidate as a Tarporley toff, until he won the seat with a huge 17.6% swing. But this does seem to be the beginning of another Labour onslaught on Tory toffs. An early salvo has been John Prescott’s emotionally incontinent performance in a radio interview as he blustered and stuttered about background and education and money and unfairness. Eric Pickles, for the Conservatives, added to the fog of class war by going on about being working class himself, as if he in person could serve as expiation for any Tory toffery that cannot be denied. The only important question here is whether toffs — any toffs, of any party — are fit to represent us politically. Those who suggest not have to explain why. Is it that toffs have no right to represent us because of their class guilt or our class hatred? Or is it that they are not capable of representing us, because they are too limited by their background? Is there something about being rich, highly educated and well travelled that makes them unfit for office? To say so is not only mean and dishonest. It is dangerous as well. Snobbery is a two-edged sword. For what if the kettle turned on the pot? The posh toff kettle could say the prole pot from a sink estate or a bog-standard school, whose education is poor, whose experiences of the wider world are necessarily narrow and who knows little of commerce or culture or wider society, is surely limited himself or herself. These days, of course, it is unacceptable to say of a person of limited background that those limitations are a handicap. I shouldn’t be surprised if it were illegal, under the rulings of some equality body. And yet it is acceptable to suggest, and to repeat all over the media, that people of a background that is far from limited are by virtue of that background unfit for public office. Brown’s jibe at Cameron was that his tax policy proposal was “dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton”. A rational person must ask what is necessarily wrong with a policy dreamt up on, or rather from, the playing fields of Eton. Whatever one may hold against Eton, nobody can deny that its playing fields have fostered hundreds of outstandingly talented, inventive men who have served this country outstandingly well. The only problem with the playing fields of Eton is that not everyone can play on them, and that is a feeble reason for denouncing the policies of those who have: what is at issue is the policy, not the person or indeed the fields. Everyone must know how, historically, inverted snobbery and toff-bashing became acceptable. Good manners and proper feeling have always demanded that nobody should patronise anyone of modest background, yet in the past toffs regularly did so nastily, without even bothering to disguise their feelings of superiority and entitlement. That was hateful and still is but that does not make it right to inflict the same wrong on the inoffensive toffs of today. I am not an apologist for toffs; my experience is that they vary hugely and some are dreadful. There were some unspeakable toffs at Cambridge when I was there. A group of them once tried to throw me into King’s College fountain, objecting to my dishevelled leftie appearance, I suppose, and reminding me of the toff brutality described so mercilessly by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall. Like every woman of my generation, I know what it is to be insufferably patronised by men. I sympathise with anyone who is condescended to, for any reason. Even so, I have no sympathy for the widespread desire to write toffs off as useless or to assume that they are all “out of touch”, in the usual indictment. It comes, I think, from the much wider contemporary idea — a piece of contemporary cant — that only people who have experienced something personally can understand it. Perhaps this is a by-product of the 1970s feminist insistence that the personal is the political. According to this thinking, since toffs haven’t, presumably, had the same experiences as most people, they cannot understand or speak for most people. This idea is surprisingly widespread and surprisingly important. In disability politics, in my experience, many people assume that you cannot understand what disability means unless you have direct personal experience of it. I discovered this when I found that if I said unpopular things in meetings I was shouted down, until it occurred to me to say that I did have close personal experience of disability — at which point I suddenly found it possible to get a hearing and to be taken seriously. This is all wrong. If human understanding were limited to direct experience we would still be living in caves. What humans have is imagination — the liberation of the imagination vastly extended by the power of education. Imagination means that men can write exquisitely about women, for instance, without the personal experience of being female. Scientists can dream up new things far beyond personal experience, and some have indeed done so from the playing fields of Eton. Slaves can dream of freedom, without knowing what it is. Even the poshest of toffs might have the imagination to see life as others see it, or the intelligence to come up with a coherent political policy, despite the grave disadvantages of an outstanding education and the best that a good background can offer. To pretend otherwise is to be a hypocrite, or else a desperate, dog-whistling politician.