There has been a bit of a debate here for some while about poshness. The Prime Minister and Chancellor were both privately educated and both went to Oxford University. They both have aristocratic backgrounds (if a little distant now) and come from wealthy families. They both belonged to the notorious Bullingdon Club that you were only invited to join if you had pots of money. They have been referred to pejoratively as ‘2 posh boys’; the criticism being that they were privileged, lived in a select strata of society and, by implication, had no idea what the lives of the rest of us are like or what affects us. They were being tarred with the ‘let them eat cake’ brush.
This disparagement hasn’t really worked, though it is sometimes referred to in the socialist press or used in cartoons, mainly because Cameron speaks sensibly and Osborne is able to point to the mess the previous administration made of the economy. The Coalition is not exactly popular, in poll terms, but nor, in general, is the alternative greatly desired either.
The epithet came up again recently, when a Minister was asked to dismount and wheel his bicycle through the pedestrian gate from Downing Street (where he lives incidentally). Had he been in an official car, the policeman would have opened the main gate for him. He swore profusely at the policeman and allegedly called him a pleb, a term which I have used oftimes, as a polite alternative to f*cking cretinous Jobsworth b*stard, but which was seized on as proof that he too is ‘posh’. I am not in any way posh BTW, even sometimes drinking my tea from a mug whilst sitting on the settee watching television! And I don’t like champagne. And I get too hungry for dinner at eight, etc.
It is Party Conference season. This week it is Labour’s turn and the Labour Opposition have now decided that this is the time to start their campaign to win the next election and have begun to state their policies. Their initial shot across the bows is to emphasise that they are not posh. With most of their money coming from the labour unions and thus the ‘working class’, this is an essential prerequisite anyway. But there are a number of problems.
Firstly, poshness is an invented condition these days. It used to refer to those who could afford to travel, of course then only the wealthy landed gentry, on the sunny side of ocean-going steamers (Port-Out Starboard-Home). But the landed gentry are not the richest persons in Britain any more. The only real aristo in the top ten is the Duke of Westminster (#7). Even The Queen only comes in at 262 on the rich list, behind J K Rowling and a lot of celebs and filthy lucre industrialists. In fact the richest woman in Britain is apparently a former Miss UK. Is she, or Rowling, or let’s say Bernie Ecclestone, who is also richer than The Queen, but who worked in the gasworks after leaving school at 16, posher than The Queen? Maybe not. They might be snobs, but probably not posh.
So it’s an alleged attitude that’s referred to here. One which, perversely, The Queen doesn’t possess. But it may be one that the Minister possesses. His father was a Conservative Minister, he was privately educated and went to Cambridge, was an officer in the Army and is now a senior politician. All that may have given him delusions of grandeur or made him an obnoxious, arrogant bully, but he is hardly posh.
Moreover, the ‘landed gentry’ these days, those that live in big houses with lots of land and people to look after them (used to be called ‘servants) are pop stars and actors. So, are they posh?
There is also something curious about our response to these words. If I was called ‘posh’, I’d either take it as a joke or protest mildly. It never used to be pejorative, but clearly now is. On the other hand, if I was called ‘a pleb’, I think I’d just accept it and perhaps try to be less common next time. Yet the term was always derogatory.
Secondly, the problem with Milliband taking up this anti-posh stance is that both he and his Shadow Chancellor were educated at Oxford, as was Balls’ wife Yvette Cooper, a sort of power behind the throne, and Balls was privately educated to boot. All three also studied at Havard incidentally. They earn more than I ever did and are much richer now. And Milliband has a much more plummy voice than I. So are they not posh?
It also doesn’t work to brand all Tories posh; Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer and John Major, her successor, was the son of a trapeze artist. I can understand all Labour politicians wanting to have working class roots on the other hand.
Thirdly, we haven’t asked the obvious question about the Downing Street gate incident. Why did the policeman behave the way he did? And why did he threaten to arrest the Minister for swearing at him? Maybe because he was in fact a Jobsworth and bore a chip on his shoulder about opening a gate for important people or towards important people generally? This is a dangerous route to go down. The whole ethos of the British policing system, since Peel invented the police, is that they are citizens like you and I. That’s mostly why they are not armed and don’t strut about issuing orders to us plebs. I imagine that grates with some of them, who must feel they deserve more respect than they get from a large minority of the population who see them as ‘authority’ and thus to be reviled. I agree whole-heartedly that we should love our police for what they do far more than we do. I wouldn’t be a policeman, but I have great admiration for those who would and are. But I wouldn’t have any respect for one that tried to belittle another citizen.
Fourthly, and I think this is most important, what’s wrong with people who can afford a good education and who have enough money to spend on election campaigns, etc without having to work, becoming our leaders? On the whole, I think I’d rather have someone who ought to have some idea what their talking about as my Prime Minister, than someone who was poor and uneducated. If my next door neighbour announced he was running for Parliament and hoped to become PM, I don’t think I’d support him much, however sensible he might be. But that’s just me. However, if politicians are too much like us, we would find it hard to give them leadership over us. The first among equals applies only to the leader of the Cabinet, not the leader of the country. In other words, the ‘equals’ are the other Ministers, not the plebs.
Interestingly, at the moment, Labour is doing rather better in the polls than the Coalition, but most people asked prefer David Cameron as leader to any of the Labour aspirants. Perhaps they’re seen as down-market or just too ordinary?