Social ranking redux

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The New Snobbery

David Skelton, Biteback Publishing, 253 pp, £16.99

KEN BELL says many members of the middle classes have found ingenious new ways of disliking people

Britain is notoriously obsessed with class, but now there is a new, ideological way of looking down on people. David Skelton, a native northeasterner who is director of the Conservative-supporting think-tank Renewal, argues that we have replaced old forms of snobbery with new ones, based on beliefs rather than birth. Contemporary British politics shows no sign of Nancy Mitford’s famous ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ distinctions (napkin or serviette, long A or short), or inherited privilege, or Captain Mainwaring-like painful insecurity, but has developed new prejudices instead. The new breed of snob is not interested in how a man speaks or what his background is, but in his outlook.

The new political arbiters are the products of the post-1992 expansion of the education system, and for over a generation they have felt that they set the tone of public debate, a debate which often seemed to involve attacking the people they regarded as being beneath them:

Comedians, who are first to loudly claim to be offended in most circumstances, are the first to savage the so-called ‘crap town’ within the UK and ridicule narrow-minded, proletarian values. The likes of the BBC’s The Mash Report and Radio 4’s The News Quiz had a regular habit of punching down.

When, in 2016, a coalition of traditional middle class voters and even more traditional working class ones voted to take the UK out of the European Union, their sense of entitlement exploded in a righteous outrage that continues to this day as the reaction to the Conservative victory in the 2021 Hartlepool by-election shows. One writer argued that “a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots,” before going on to ask: “How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?” This is not the old middle-class directing its angst at blue-collar ‘inferiors’; today’s snobs are the products of those former polytechnics that now degrade the name university, who almost invariably have well-paid roles as members of the local government nomenklatura.

What Skelton overlooks in his attack on today’s left is that Labour has never been an entirely plebeian party so the problem is not new. George Orwell made that point in The Road to Wigan Pier when he described the average Labour activist as being a rather shabby clerk, with “a background in Nonconformity”, possibly also a vegetarian, and the possessor of a position that he would not give up under any circumstances. Orwell could have been writing about the ancestors of today’s social work industry, teaching trade, NHS managerial caste and ancillary workers, but what saved Labour in those days were the industrial trades unions. Whenever some insane policy was thought up by the activists, the union block vote could be relied upon to knock it firmly on the head and keep Labour electorally sound.The destruction of industrial Britain, which led to the end of industrial unionism, has left the field wide open to Labour’s middle-class activists. The people they select for electoral office are as socially liberal as they are, and that factor pulls the party further away from its socially conservative voting base.

The snobbery and open contempt that Labour’s members have for their electorate is covered in great, depressing detail in Skelton’s work. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, far too many of them “hoped the Nissan plant in Sunderland would close” as the people there were “stupid” and deserved everything that was coming to them. “Others said they would be ‘pleased’ if the fishing industry was harmed by Brexit” as that was what people had voted for. At root, as Skelton says, this attitude is based on the belief that low-income workers are the authors of their own misfortune. The new snobs are meritocrats, who managed to wangle themselves a berth in a post-1992 “university” and believe that people who haven’t followed that road are too thick to bother about. This attitude now seems to encompass a sizeable chunk of the middle-class as a whole.

The problem is that the working-class is not stupid. They may have rejected Labour, but that is because whenever a Labour MP sneers at a house that flies an English flag, or the party opposes the opening of a new coal mine, as it did this year in Cumbria, the message that goes down the wires is that Labour is not the party of their values or economic interests. This is important because The New Snobbery is also a plea for a politics that treats the working class vote as something to be fought for. Skelton may be a Conservative, but he realises that unless Labour takes on board policies that appeal to its old, core voters, his party is not likely to do it entirely on their own. The Tories need always to be moderated, and pushed, by a Labour Party that has regained its sanity. Skelton’s analysis is shrewd and worthy of attention. The only problem is that having put his finger on the problem, he does not come up with any solutions. On the other hand, perhaps there isn’t one.