The return of our old friend, cultural snobbery

There was a time when politicians were social outsiders, too derided and distrusted to be able to influence everyday behaviour in the wider world. In one area, though, they are turning out to be trend-setters. With dimple-cheeked Old Etonians in government and the Mayor of London spouting Latin when asked a tricky question by Jeremy Paxman, a new age of social snobbery is dawning.

Class consciousness, of course, is never far away. While the last government was in power, Tory MPs loved to laugh at John Prescott when he was addressing the House of Commons. Those who had bought into the idea of classless Britain, a favourite of both John Major and Tony Blair, might have been made uneasy by the snootiness behind the jokes but somehow at the time it seemed harmless. It was Prezza. He sort of asked for it.

Snobbery has grown nastier in power; it is now more carefully calibrated, wider in its targets. Old Upstairs, Downstairs attitudes have returned, with Julian Fellowes, that eager champion of social superiority, being given a Sunday night TV toff-fest (and getting much of it rather sweetly wrong) in Downton Abbey.

Now cultural commentators have begun to play their part. Just as that earlier golden age of class-consciousness, the early 1980s, propelled Peter York to stardom, so the age of Cameron has found its own Miss Manners in the design critic Stephen Bayley. There is no snobbery quite like art snobbery, and Bayley has just delivered a masterclass in the discipline with a Daily Telegraph article mocking a painting by Michelle Dovey bought by David Miliband’s wife, Louise, and given to her husband.

In a spirit of generosity towards an amateur photographer, Miliband made a cardinal error which a more experienced public figure would have avoided: he was photographed in his own house, allowing bystanders like Bayley to pore over domestic details and screech with horror at the taste it revealed. The work in question, a large oil painting showing dancing nude women, may seem a harmless, rather jolly piece to most people but, to the great critic, it was “middle-brow junk” of the kind which might be found at the “dreadful Affordable Art Fair in Battersea”.

Announcing, hilariously, that his judgements were based not on snobbery but on “consistent, accumulated, intelligent and sensitive observations”, Bayley provided a perfect example of snobbish, ill-observed criticism. “What does it mean?” he asks of the painting. “It exists to confer sophistication – there are nudes! There is vigorous brushwork! We are worldly bohemians! – but in fact confers the very opposite.”

Here is the reduction of something human and kind – a rather sweet picture by a young artist, given by a wife to her husband – to something ugly and trivial: an indicator of class. Gathering up his skirts, the Miss Manners of the art world asks: “Is this what a Leader of the Opposition manqué should have on his wall?” Behind the sheer silliness of the attack, something rather revealing is going on. “The great competitive adventure of the contemporary world,” writes Bayley, “is that the things we possess murmur truths about us, betraying little secrets here and there.”

What an insight into a mean-spirited, impoverished world those words provide. For most sane people, the only great competitive adventure of the contemporary world will be to avoid Stephen Bayley, a man who will judge you not on who you are, or what you say, do or believe, but on the things you happen to have in your house and whether they conform to his own idea of excruciatingly good taste.

It is, as he says, “a shabby story”. The Milibands emerge from it with credit and Michelle Dovey will, I hope, soon be the toast of Cork Street. If there is a chilling thrill of horror here, it lies in the naked, vulgar dance of modern cultural snobbery.

Independent, 2 November 2010