Friday, April 5, 2013

Mr Osborne looks like a French aristo in a powdered wig. But that's no reason to put on this prolier than thou routine

Tom Utley offers some thoughts on the British class system

Whenever I see George Osborne on the telly, I remember a friend’s brilliant observation that he always looks like an aristocrat in a powdered wig, peering nervously through his carriage window at the Parisian mob on the eve of the French Revolution.

Indeed, the poor man has about him a permanent air of haughty disdain for his fellow man, mixed with a touch of cruelty and a hint of fear.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Chancellor actually suffers from any of these character defects. In private life, for all I know, he may be as lovable, fearless and free from hauteur as the Andrex puppy.

All my friend was saying is that when the Good Lord was distributing facial features, He unkindly kitted out young George Gideon Oliver Osborne with those of a supercilious grandee of the ancien regime. He might have added that He gave him a voice to match the face — with a thin, reedy quality and a fastidious accent, suggestive of a childhood spent whining at liveried footmen.

Whatever the truth may be about the inner Gideon, as his family called him in his youth, it has long been apparent that for a politician of the 21st century, he has a bit of an image problem. Clearly, he thinks so himself, because this week, as anyone who heard his speech on welfare reform will confirm, he tried to do something about it.

Not the face, of course. There’s not much a bloke can do about that, short of plastic surgery or growing a beard. But he made a very noticeable effort to adjust the accent, attempting to bring it a notch or two down the social scale by elaborately dropping his tees and aitches and flicking in other touches of Estuary English.

‘Wod I wanna torkta you abah .....’ he began, before getting on to his message that ‘hard-working people who wanna ge’ on in life are gonna be bedderoff’.

If you missed it, and can be bothered, you can catch the whole thing on YouTube and make up your own mind about how far he succeeded in presenting himself as a man of the people. But if you want my opinion, the experiment was not a happy one.

To me, he came across like nothing so much as an 18th-century French aristocrat on the steps of the guillotine, mounting a desperately unconvincing last-minute attempt to persuade the mob that he was really on their side. Indeed, I thought his efforts to sound prolier-than-thou drew attention to his poshness, rather than playing it down.

Of course, Mr Osborne is far from the only British politician who has tried to endear himself to an audience by disguising an accent redolent of privilege.

Perhaps the supreme vocal chameleon is Tony Blair, who will slip from a light Scottish brogue for an audience in Edinburgh to a mid-Atlantic twang for the Yanks — and from Mitford to mockney, depending on whether he is addressing officer cadets at Sandhurst or young offenders in Shoreditch.

But in a strange sort of way, the former Prime Minister’s Rory Bremner act is less jarring than Mr Osborne’s — and not only because Mr Blair is better at it.

My own paradoxical theory is that he gets away with it more successfully because, in switching from one accent to another, he is being completely true to himself. For I’ve always thought the most remarkable feature of the real Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is that there isn’t one, and never was. The man is a fake, through and through, a chameleon to the shallow depths of his nature.

On the other hand, there is a real George Osborne, rooted firmly in a distinctive social class. The trouble is that the mockney-speaking persona he adopted on Tuesday, at Morrisons supermarket distribution centre in Kent, wasn’t him.

True, a survey this week found that more than a fifth of Britons admit to altering our natural accents — whether to sound more posh, like Hyacinth Bucket and the late Woy Jenkins, or less so, like most of the Queen’s grandchildren. But voters still tend to be suspicious of politicians who try to disown their class backgrounds.

If my theory is right, it may go a long way towards explaining why Boris Johnson’s poshness has never stood much in the way of his popularity. For say what you like about my old colleague, what you hear is what you get.

Like David Cameron, he has never made the slightest attempt to disguise the fact he comes from an upper-middle-class background and went to the poshest school in the world. Indeed, my only slight doubt about his accent is the mystery of how anyone below the rank of Duke could genuinely be as posh as Boris sounds.

What is certain is that the niceties and gradations of the Britain class system — with its animosities and snobberies, whether inverted or otherwise — have exerted an endless (and, let’s face it, unhealthy) fascination for the people of these islands through the ages.

Without them, most of our greatest novelists, from Austen and Trollope to P.G. Wodehouse, would have had trouble finding anything to write about, while many a wedding reception would have passed off with a great deal less ill-feeling between the families of the bride and the groom.

Of course, attitudes to class have long been changing. Indeed, one great irony about Mr Osborne is that if he’d actually been around in the 18th century to which his face belongs, snobs would have thought him a frightful oik. This is because his father, though the 17th Baronet, is in the interior decorating trade (Osborne & Little is the family firm), while young Gideon himself went to the least posh of the three great London public schools.

After all (and do agree, my dear) his alma mater St Paul’s has always ranked socially behind my own old school, Westminster —and a poor third to that production line of cads and bounders, Harrow. Yet today, even the most crashing snobs seem to regard Mr Osborne and his background as ineffably posh.

But then nothing was ever simple about our class system. And now the BBC has teamed with a group of academics to complicate it further, by inventing seven new gradations of social class — ranging from ‘elite’ at the top to ‘precariat’ at the bottom — and inviting us all to test which we belong to by answering a questionnaire online.

It seems to me a pretty pointless exercise, with more to do with income than class. And it will surprise nobody to discover that Mr Osborne falls squarely among the elite. But then so do some three million others (including, apparently, me — though our four sons, all fluent mockney speakers, with highly precarious futures, come out second from bottom as ‘emergent service workers’).

Now, I have to admit that I understand why Mr Osborne sought to disguise his class on Tuesday. After all, he was trying to spread the message that it’s wrong for people who are capable of working to live off the labour of others. And hasn’t he only to enunciate his natural vowels to indicate that he’s well used to benefiting from other’s efforts, through a trust fund or two?

But here’s the final irony: when he says that idleness should never pay better than work, he is striking a chord that resonates from top to bottom of the class system. Indeed, polls show that the public’s hostility to over-generous welfare benefits is at its loudest in the BBC’s three poorest categories — traditional working class, emergent service workers and precariat.

For once, he has a message that will appeal to the great mass of voters — in fact, it may yet prove an election winner — and there’s really no need to deliver it in an unnatural voice.

In my book, Mr Osborne deserves huge credit for sticking to his economic strategy. If he takes my advice, he’ll stick to his true accent, too.


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