Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cameron and Clegg: who is more upper crust?

It’s an intriguing, very British – and entirely pointless – pastime to work out which of our leaders is the posher

It is most odd,” said my friend, a Frenchman now living, like most sensible Frenchmen, in London. “Your country has given birth to twins. This Cameron and Clegg, he is the same person, no? They are both, how you say, posh?”

“Yes,” I explained. “But they are different sorts of posh.”

He looked confused: “But both went to private school, both are rich, both are sons of financiers. Even the hair is similar.”

“True,” I conceded. “But they are not the same species of posh. David Cameron is Eton-Oxford-country- clubby-cutglass-shooting party sort of posh, whereas Nick Clegg is Westminster-Cambridge- metropolitan-foreign-glottalstop-trustfund sort of posh. Cameron is upper-upper-middle class with a dash of English gentry, but Clegg is middle-upper-middle class with a hint of European aristocracy. These are quite different things.”

From the look on his bemused Gallic face I could see I was not getting through. So I started from basics.

In British society there are not three classes, but an infinite variety of sub-classes, governed by a multiplicity of minute distinctions, invisible and incomprehensible to anyone outside the system. These are partly dependent on wealth, geography and education, but also on lineage, accent, pastimes, parsimony and where you buy your shoes.

In France, there are just two classes: the ruling and the ruled. The revolution made very little difference to this. In Britain, as pointed out by John Prescott (working-middle-class- peer-to-be), there is only one class, the middle one, to which we all belong. All members of the middle class are equal, but some are more equal than others.

“Aha,” said my French friend, Frenchly. “Then who is more grand, Cameron or Clegg? Who is plus posh?”

This is a tricky question, and one worthy of Anthony Powell, the great observer and chronicler of the English class system. An insatiable snob, Powell understood better than any other novelist, with the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh, the minute gradations of British class and social placement that once separated, say, a baronet who has joined the middle class from a self-made peer who buys his own furniture.

The drawing of such distinctions, not just between but also within classes, is a peculiarly British urge. As Lord Robert Cecil once wrote: “Directly Man has his most elementary material wants, the first aspiration of his amiable heart is for the privilege of being able to look down on his neighbours.” So who, in the new Cameron-Clegg ménage, is looking down on whom? Which was born with the longer silver spoon?

Cameron would seem to be posher, genealogically. He is a descendant of William IV and distantly related to the Queen. His mother is the daughter of a baronet. His mother-in-law is a viscountess. Samantha Cameron is authentic old money county posh, being the eldest daughter of Sir Reginald Adrian Berkeley Sheffield, 8th Baronet and a descendant of Charles II.

But there is blueish blood in the Clegg veins too. His grandmother was a White Russian baroness. His great uncle was clubbed to death by his own peasants, which carries a certain aristo-cachet. His great aunt was a spy: it is well known that before about 1992 MI6 did not recruit anyone who was not directly out of the top drawer. On the other hand, his ancestors on the other side were Dutch colonial entrepreneurs: yes, trade.

Cameron’s manners are exquisitely upper-class. Unlike Clegg, who did not hesitate to barge in during the televised debates, Cameron fell silent when interrupted, and when asked to be quiet, he was. This may explain why he didn’t triumph in the debates.

Cameron is said to enjoy shooting pheasants, whereas the closest Clegg has come to blood sports is at the Liberal Democrat annual conference. “Eton and Oxford” still sounds immeasurably grander than “Westminster and Cambridge”, which sounds merely clever. Cameron is clubbable (Whites, the Bullingdon) in a way that Clegg is not.

Cameron eats fish and chips and enjoys reading cheap paperbacks, which is itself a mark of extreme poshness. Only the very grand are instinctively frugal, as demonstrated by this week’s revelation that the Queen Mother rented a television set for her Scottish castle.

Clegg’s accent is fluent BBC, with a hint of the Estuary twang perfected by Tony Blair (lower-upper-middle class). Cameron’s accent, according to friends, used to be rather more “fruity and patrician”, and his vowels have grown flatter as he has ascended higher.

George Orwell once said of Winston Churchill that the Prime Minister was “too old to have acquired the modern ‘educated’ accent ... he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds like Cockney”. Today, Clegg has the “educated” accent and Cameron the Edwardian remnants, but to the average man (and Frenchman) they sound identical.

And that, finally, is the point. Clegg and Cameron occupy very slightly different niches on the social spectrum, but it matters not a jot. In earlier times, it is easy to imagine Clegg being dismissed by the likes of Anthony Powell as a jumped-up nouveau riche, or Cameron being lampooned by Evelyn Waugh as a member of the Bollinger Club, “crimson and roaring”, brought up to “the sound of English county families baying for broken glass”.

(Waugh’s own snobbery was matched by the snootiness of others towards him: “a silly little suburban sod with an inferiority complex and no palate – drinks Pernod after meals,” sniffed his history tutor.) Today, the infinitesimal gradations of class are of anthropological interest, but of no political relevance whatever. The election result has offered conclusive evidence that voters know that there are more important considerations than where someone went to school, how they speak and whether they like to kill animals at the weekend.

Peter Mandelson, among others, tried to get the class war going by insisting that Cameron was looking down his “rather long toffee nose”. But it failed to ignite, for the same reason that the Clegg-Cameron alliance will be seen not as some upper-class, public school conspiracy but as a genuine transformation of the political landscape.

British social distinctions are now merely interesting, rather than important. We are still conscious of class, without being paralysed by class consciousness.

“I think I get it,” said my French friend. “These two people are posh in different ways, but it makes no difference.”


“How very English.”


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