George Bernard Shaw once said, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I frequently wonder whether things have really changed all that much since Shaw’s day.
In the run up to the general election you can be sure that much will be made of the background and schooling of the major players. Of the four main players in the forthcoming electoral scrimmage, only one: Ed Miliband was not privately educated. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage all had the benefit of a private
education. Schooling apart, it is doubtful that any one of them has ever done a day of work that has left them dirty, sweaty and downright exhausted. They will all claim to speak for the run of the mill men and women of the country: Mondeo Men and Worcester Women will both be expected to heed their call to arms.
It is probably not too much of a stretch of the imagination to forecast that Labour will claim that the Conservatives are out of touch with the ordinary man and woman in the street. Yet Ed Miliband’s inability to do something as fundamental as eat a bacon butty without looking so hopelessly unsure of the etiquette of the occasion, means that he can hardly claim common cause with every day folk.
As David Cameron’s right hand man, George Osborne is well used to the class warfare brickbats coming his way. A privately educated alumnus of Magdalen College, Oxford the chancellor is cut from much the same cloth as his boss. This is perhaps why he is ever ready for a photo opportunity, in which he is pictured in a hairnet as he chats to workers in some food processing plant, or kitted out with the ubiquitous hi-vis safety vest and steel toe capped boots as he chews the fat with a maintenance engineer from Crewe. For all the media training he must have received ,he always seems ill at ease during these meetings. I can’t help but wonder if his ablutions are particularly thorough after his encounters with the other half.
Christened Gideon; he changed his name at the age of thirteen with a degree of prescience that few of that age can achieve. Even then he must have known that some names just don’t go down well with the voters.
But does snobbery have a flipside? Might it be the case that those who earn their living from the nitty gritty trades have a healthy contempt for those who can’t lay a neat line of bricks or fillet a salmon in a handful of smooth, practised movements? This phenomenon exists and is something I have experienced at first hand. When I worked as a rigger in the dockyard in Gibraltar, I was keenly aware of the contempt in which local civil servants and office workers in general were held by my colleagues. This was particularly noticeable when we met for after work drinks. We would all be behaving perfectly normally, when in would walk a group of office wallahs, all suited and booted. Suddenly our decibel level would go through the roof. Exaggeratedly macho behaviour, which was actually quite rare during the working day, would be brought out and demonstrated. It was as if to say, “We can intimidate you, but you can’t do the same to us.”
At the time when I was working on the docks, I was the proud possessor of a couple of A levels. This was the cause of deep mistrust and meant that I had to prove myself on a daily basis, with feats of strength or resistance to pain, until I was finally accepted.
The moral superiority of those who work with their hands can often be felt when those whose work is more sedentary are forced to do that most demeaning of all things: to call a man in to do some little job around the home. The sedentary slave finds himself grasping for common ground, some conversational theme that will show the honest artisan that he would have laid those flagstones himself were it not for the fact that he had only recently had a manicure, and you know the cost of a manicure these days! “What about that football game last night, then?” Of course, there are flag layers who are into rugby union, cricket and, I dare say, the operas of Verdi. Conversations like these are a constant trope in British sitcoms, and if the sitcom writers have included them in their canon of gags, then they must be a feature of everyday life.
More than anything else, we Brits like to know where we stand in the pecking order. This might explain why the upper echelons of the aristocracy are keenly aware of the nuanced differences between a baron and an earl and why there are some people who know that the varying degrees of formality attached to hats, depends upon the stiffness of the brim. There might well be numerous strata of society to which we are denied access, but as long as there is just one layer below us, we can look down on the poor blighters who inhabit that realm with our heads held high.
Americans have long said that the sight of a Ferrari driving through a poor neighbourhood elicits cries of, “One day, I am going to have one of those!” Whilst that same Ferrari passing through some of the less salubrious neighbourhoods of these isles elicits cries of, “Rich bastard! Who did he rob to get that?” There is more than a grain of truth about this.
Snobbery, whether traditional or inverted, does not seem to be on the wane. And no matter who wins the forthcoming election, you can be pretty sure of one thing: whenever they open their mouth to speak, there will be a large number of the audience who will have decided – before they come to the end of the first sentence – that they hate this fecker.