Why Britain can’t shake off its snobbery
12 August 2009
There have been problems on the moors in advance of the Glorious Twelfth, today’s opening of the grouse-shooting season. Successive damp summers have accelerated the spread of the heather beetle, which destroys the birds’ habitat. There have been worries that the rare and beautiful bird of prey, the hen harrier, has been unsportingly killing grouse in spite of (illegal) persecution by gamekeepers. Police have warned that gangs have targeted licensed shotguns for theft.
Nevertheless, grouse numbers have increased on the moors and so, more importantly, has the amount of people who wish to spend a lot of money for the privilege of shooting them. The Glorious Twelfth, one of Britain’s great institutions of privilege, has – surprise, surprise – turned out to be recession-proof.
In fact, it looks like being a bumper year for all kinds of class division. As hard times have hit the economy, there may have been anguished mutterings from ministers about the need to put an end to unfair advantages in society. But then there is nothing new in that – the war on privilege has been a governmental mantra for the past 13 years. The more the British are reminded what a terrible thing snobbery is, the more they cling to it.
If anything, class prejudice has increased since that bright new false dawn in 1997. The trend can be seen at a trivial level – it has just been revealed that the debutante season, culminating in Queen Charlotte’s Ball – is to return. The rationale for reviving this absurd social crash course in privilege and division offered to the rich and dim is that ever-useful party-goers’ excuse, charity.
In the media, class is everywhere. Those who thought John Prescott’s investigation into the subject last year was stretching an obvious idea too thinly are in for a shock – Mr and Mrs Prescott are back for another series. More embarrassingly, Channel Four is playing the class game by broadcasting a grim form of OK! magazine-style documentaries. The formula is simple: find a story involving the upper-middle classes and a bit of naughtiness (Boothby, Princess Margaret, Aspinall, and, this week, the run-up to the Queen’s coronation), talk to a few washed-up toffs, then film imagined scenes played by actors.
Snobbery has been behind much of the best British comedy, from Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers to I’m Alan Partridge and Little Britain, but now it reaches every part of the media. It seethes near the surface of reality shows (why else but snobbery would the goofy former junkie, the Marquess of Blandford, be invited on to a programme about homelessness?) It is to be found on BBC radio, where a new form of received English holds sway: Scottish, Welsh, Irish, West Indian and home counties accents are fine, but you’ll wait a long time to hear the news read by a Liverpudlian, a Geordie or someone from the West Country.
For all the talk of classlessness, there are forms of snobbery in politics, too. It is there in the friends with whom Labour ministers take their holidays. It is evident in the general fascination with the ennoblement of Lord Sugar – indeed, it is part of the whole farrago of privilege and self-importance which surrounds the House of Lords. Next year, there will almost certainly be toffs in government, although they will studiously be cranking down their accents, awkwardly dropping consonants like trustafarians slumming it in Notting Hill.
The truth is that snobbery in its various forms remains a great national weakness. Somehow we feel more at ease when some sort of hierarchy of privilege, however absurd and unfair, is in place.
A plague of unnecessary pessimism
Because our default setting is towards pessimism and paranoia, the stories of the summer have been of bad weather and of nature behaving badly. Over recent days, for example, grim reports of “plagues” of ladybirds have been appearing in the press.
But wait. Surely it was only last year that we were reading another depressing, but very different, story. The sweet and good little seven-spot British ladybird was declining in numbers and its survival was being seriously threatened by an invasion of its larger, more brutal American cousin, the Harlequin. Now, without warning, it is a plague.
The truth is that the summer of 2009 has been an astonishing one for insects. Butterflies, in particular, have done well. In my part of East Anglia, there are more Meadow Browns, Small Heaths, Commas, Peacocks, Skippers (pictured), Speckled Woods and, the year’s big migrant, Painted Ladies, than there have been for a long time.
If this has been the year when more families than usual holiday in Britain, then the glorious bonanza of butterflies and indeed of the wholly beneficent ladybird has been well timed. Not that our perennially gloomy media will be mentioning that.
Aussie cricketer scores an own goal…
The Australian cricketer Justin Langer has been helping his team-mates as they compete for the Ashes with a crib-sheet into the strengths and weaknesses of English sportsmen. Excellent front-runners, they tend to “taper off very quickly” when they start losing. “They love being comfortable,” Langer wrote. “Take them out of their comfort zone and they don’t like it for one second.”
A perfect example of this kind of collapse occurred on the first day of the English football league. Norwich, playing in England’s third tier for the first time in 50 years and one of the favourites to be promoted, were doing well in front of a large home crowd until the other side scored two quick goals. Out of their comfort zone, the home team fell apart and ended up being thrashed 7-1.
Unfortunately for Langer’s analysis, it was the Norwich goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos who tapered off rather more quickly and disastrously than anyone else on the pitch. Theoklitos has previously played for his country – Australia.