The upstairs, downstairs society

Pin-striped and in a chauffeur-driven car, Andrew Neil has been driving around Britain in search of privilege. In this week’s BBC documentary Posh And Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain, he argued that, after a couple of decades of relative classlessness, meritocratic Britain is pretty much dead. It was the closing of grammar schools which caused the problem.

The truth is altogether more embarrassing. Snobbery is part of modern Britain. It was in Neil’s own rather touching eagerness to show how well he had done – smart flat, fancy car, staff waiting on him hand and foot. It was there in the unquestioned assumption on Andy Coulson’s resignation a few days ago that he was more in touch with ordinary people simply because he had not gone to university. It is part of the silliness that surrounds the royal wedding.

Above all, it is visible in contemporary entertainment, from Downton Abbey to The King’s Speech, nominated this week for 12 Oscars. That film, behind its excellent acting, design and direction, is flawlessly formulaic. It has that favourite theme of contemporary film, handicap caused by childhood cruelty. The central character is a much-loved cinematic cliché – cue Four Weddings And A Funeral, A Fish Called Wanda, The English Patient and others – the repressed Englishman. There is throughout the film a view of class which reassures contemporary audiences that prejudice based on birth belongs to an almost forgotten past.

No wonder The King’s Speech has been such a success: it is the ultimate feelgood film for our times, allowing Americans to bask in their superiority to the uptight British, and the contemporary British to feel more evolved and sympathetic than their forebears.

For a culture still deeply in thrall to class, the Royal Family offers the perfect fantasy, providing in reality and in film its own myths: the tragic princess who made her people care, the Queen – as presented by Helen Mirren or Prunella Scales – who is not only wise but surprisingly kind, the Queen Mother who was once a dimply, idealised grandmother figure, and now, thanks to Helena Bonham-Carter, turns out to have been a loving, warm-hearted, sexy wife.

In its way, Neil’s documentary also indulged our sense of superiority to the past. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it implied, the British people felt the need to look up to the grouse-moor grandees who were in charge. Today the age of deference is dead. Again, the truth is more awkward. The comfort and escapism offered by class divisions within a stratified society are still there, only more carefully disguised.

These days, the privately educated are taught that they need to understand about world poverty. Caring is on the curriculum of the trainee top person. Fifty years ago, public schoolboys were told that their responsibility was to lead; the message is still there, but implicitly, invisibly. On the other side of a stratified society, class serves its purpose, too. It lets everyone off the hook. When Neil asked some bright schoolchildren in Paisley why few had ambitions to get to a leading university, the answer was that those places were closed shops for the posh. That lack of ambition must make life slightly easier for all concerned.

Here is how it works in 2011. At the top, a small group of well educated technocrats, versed in appearing classless, are in government, dismantling public services on the blithe assumption that other privileged people will take up the slack. Where the state has supported decency and opportunity – libraries, woodlands, the BBC World Service – those public advantages are being cut. Meanwhile, a jaded electorate accepts others are in charge and no alternative exists, while preparing for that great national treat, another royal wedding.

The end of grammar schools was not to blame for any of that. Only a revolution in education, at the end of which none but the silliest snobs would educate their children privately, will bring to an end the hopeless addiction to class of a divided society.

Independent, Friday, 28 January 2011