Every generation over the past 60 years believes that snobbery is on the way out, and without fail each of them turns out to be wrong. Class prejudice never disappears, but merely changes its character. The real division today, for example, is between a broad semi-elite, which extends from the famous to the political but also includes almost anyone likely to be interviewed on the Today programme, and the rest of the population – real people, as they have come to be known.
Real people get on with their lives. Busy juggling work and the family, they distrust talk or thought. Most of them have been to hell and back at some point because that is how it is in the real world. The tears of real people are more genuine than anyone else’s. They are in touch with their feelings, sometimes to a disastrous extent.
For this reason, real people make for great television and are useful in political soundbites. To catch a sense of how contemporary snobbery works, watch a television executive excusing The Jeremy Kyle Show or listen to a politician explaining how voters are not interested in Westminster gossip but in whether they can pay their mortgages/whether there will be decent schools for the kiddies/pensions of the old folks etc.
This division of modern life into real and non-real people works rather well. Those in power praise real people, while looking down on them. For their part, real people are proud of their own authenticity and have a certain contempt for the non-real beings who are on their televisions every night. But just now and then the unthinkable happens. A real person becomes politically powerful. Like Sarah Palin in America, they do not cover up their ordinariness but make it their selling-point. The effect is instant and startling. “She understands ‘real people’,” one of millions of bloggers wrote in wonder.
Right-wing commentators in the media, about as unreal as anybody could be, quickly get in touch with their inner real person. Mark Steyn, in the National Review, enthusiastically embraced the cliché of the moment. “Real people don’t define ‘experience’ as appearing on unwatched Sunday-morning talk shows every week,” he wrote.
The reaction on the other side to this breaking of ranks is just as interesting. The non-real people are dismissive at first, then fearful. Finally, a sort of class hatred emerges. Palin may indeed hold repellent views and have a dodgy record on all sorts of things, but the first line of attack against her has not been about policy but snobbery. Her class and accent have been mocked by TV satirists. Press commentators of every political hue have shuddered at her small-town uncouthness.
Andrew Sullivan, another eminent right-winger, wrote that he disagreed with Obama on virtually every issue. But he could not help comparing him to Palin. “He was President of the Harvard Law Review; she was the point guard on her high school basketball team. He has surrounded himself in his campaign with world-class people … I doubt she has even met a half-dozen world class people in her lifetime.”
Could it happen here? Of course. Once a real person arrives on the scene and knows how to play the game, the non-real – Cameron, Paxman, Miliband, Mirren, Clarkson and the rest – will become pastily similar to one another. Real people, with their reassuringly bigoted views and slightly shambolic private lives, seem somehow more alive, more in touch. And that is where the trouble starts.