By Swapan Dasgupta
f recent opinion polls mirror the outcome, it would be wise to endorse London Mayor Boris Johnson’s appealing solution to a looming British disaster: “Dissolve the electorate and summon a new one.” There is still a fortnight for Albion to come to its senses, elect a coherent government and prevent a paralysis that could propel a beleaguered economy in the direction of Iceland and Greece.
It is curious that Britons should actually invite the uncertainties of a hung Parliament. By rights, a reinvigorated and fashionably inclusive Conservative Party should have been the natural alternative now that New Labour has lost its way after 13 years in power. But that is not how things are shaping up. The exasperation with Labour has run parallel to nagging doubts over the Tory alternative and a perverse inclination to give the Liberal Democrats a chance to muddy the waters. Apart from a sense of unsullied piousness, there’s no clarity over what the Lib Dems stand for. Yet, this hasn’t stopped an inexplicable groundswell for the third alternative. So much so that Nick Clegg may turn out to be Britain’s answer to H D Deve Gowda.
The bizarre possibility of a hung Parliament at a time of economic uncertainty prompts the question: why is there insufficient enthusiasm for the 44-year-old David Cameron? We can appreciate that voters have tired of Labour and the dour, humourless Gordon Brown. But why has this fresh-faced Bambi not evoked the kind of adulation that greeted Tony Blair in 1997? After all, the two appear to be separated at birth.
The answer is: class. In particular, the inverse snobbery that marks today’s Little Britain.
Brown kicked off the class war on the very first day. When he proclaimed his attachment to his ‘middle-class’ background, he was slyly drawing attention to his opponent’s pedigree.
Cameron’s political ‘disability’ lies in his relationship from his mother’s side and through his wife to the titled aristocracy. Plus, he went to Eton. In the hateful eyes of every Madame Defarge, he is tainted by birth and upbringing. That he subsequently secured a First from Oxford hasn’t lessened his class crimes. Rather than be wowed by his cleverness (not a natural upper class attribute) the class warriors have gleefully pointed to his membership of the Bullingdon, an undergrad dining club that attracted the boisterous and dandy Hooray Henrys of Oxford. If a man can spend a riotous three years in Oxford and still secure a first-class degree, he should, ideally, be a role model. To the new Sparticists, it implied he was a Harry Flashman, the archetypal bounder and cad.
The wheel has turned full circle from the days Lord Curzon deemed a gentleman couldn’t have soup at luncheon or be seen in a brown suit in London.
In the mid-1920s, A J Balfour “nonchalantly assembled a Cabinet… (that) included a brother, a first cousin, a first cousin’s husband, his fag at Eton (and) his fagmaster …” In 1957, Sir Antony Eden appointed an 18-member Cabinet in which 10 were old Etonians, of which five had gone on to Christ Church, Oxford. It took Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, to reinvent the Conservative Party, make it more middle class and merit-oriented.
Yet, the changes weren’t always appreciated. Harold Macmillan rued that the Thatcher Cabinet had “more old Estonians than old Etonians”, Alan Clarke mocked Michael Heseltine for living in a house where the furniture was ‘bought’ and John Major was taunted as the hick who tucked his shirt into his underpants.
Cameron has tried too hard to live down the stigma of privilege. He has accommodated the sensibilities of a permissive society on faddish issues like gays, single mothers, ethnicity and the environment. Today’s Tory candidates reflect the diversities of a country fanatical about living down its past. For his part, Cameron has banished his children to state schools, shunned private medicine and appears tie-less in posters. His faithful shadow George Osborne (also Eton and Oxford), the heir to a baronetcy, took elocution lessons to hide his verbal class distinction.
Maybe Cameron should have remained authentic and not succumbed to the Levellers. Boris Johnson (also Eton and Oxford) has persisted with his public school impishness — he recently delivered a speech in Latin — and has turned class into an arena of eccentric endearment.
Class has always been a British obsession and British humour has also been driven by the eccentricities of a fading U-non-U (upper class, non-upper class) divide. Yet, there are limits to revelling in social stereotypes. When the accident of birth starts moulding the political preferences of an evolved democracy, as communists hoped it would, it is time to worry. Replacing the arrogance of entitlement with other forms of exclusion is neither progressive nor democratic.