Today
Mon 25 October 2021

With Dominic Cummings’ latest revelation that Boris Johnson didn’t want a lockdown as the majority of those dying from COVID-19 were over-80s, Otto English explores why the Prime Minister’s toxic brand of upper-class elitism is never called-out or questioned

In January 1941, as the Blitz raged and as the British Empire stood alone against the might of the Axis powers, George Orwell took to his typewriter and wrote England Your England – the opening chapter of which was to become his celebrated wartime essay, The Lion and the Unicorn. 

For a writer whose work is largely remembered for demonstrating how misinformation and spin can be used against the masses, there is a paradox at its heart. For England Your England is very much a piece of conscious propaganda – a deliberate attempt to create a unifying narrative of a diverse island people in time of war. Orwell argues that, while the nation might normally be fractioned by class, outlook and regional differences, it shares “a private language and common memories” and is thus able to come together in times of need to see off a common enemy.

In our era of Brexit, Coronavirus and the ‘culture wars’, that unifying narrative feels as if it has worn a little thin.

But England Your England resonates still, some 80 years after it was written, because between the mythologising and pontificating about Englishness, Orwell takes a master butcher’s knife to the British class system.  

England, he observes, “is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly”. It is “a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts” and, critically, “it is a family with the wrong members in control”.

Orwell understood England’s upper classes better than almost any essayist before or since as he had been embedded in it from an early age. As a lower-upper-middle-class scholarship boy at Eton, he claimed to have felt like an outsider. If he was, he was an outsider with a front-row seat to the excessive vanity of Britain’s self-appointed elite.

By all accounts, Orwell was happy to conform at the time. He coasted through school and was popular even if he was aloof. But, casting his eye back on it all in later life, it appalled him.

England is “the most class-ridden country under the sun”, he wrote, and despite the passage of time, it arguably still is.

Like ragwort, the pernicious idiot-weed of the English ‘class system’ simply won’t go away. Although, in the 71 years since Orwell’s death, there have been moments when it seemed like it might.

In the wake of the 1963 Profumo affair, and the meritocratic decade that followed, being posh was seen as a significant hindrance to political advancement. Between 1964 and 2010, all of the UK’s Prime Ministers – bar Tony Blair – were products of state education.

And it wasn’t just in politics that an aristocratic background was seen as an impediment. In the arts, business and pretty much everything else, being upper-class became a byword for twittery.  

Some dropped their titles, while others went quiet about their ancestors and country homes. Many more dispensed with their accents and turned mockney instead.

But, despite the waxing and waning of their influence and visibility, this tiny, self-serving elite no more disappeared than their trust funds did.


In the Club

Generations of self-reinforcing narratives had embedded in their collective heads the notion that the upper classes were the true heirs to England’s realm. It was simply a matter of watching and waiting for the moment to reassert it. And when needed, they rallied. 

Attempts to rid the House of Lords of hereditary peers saw a rearguard action that led to a compromise, which means that even today 92 lords (all men) occupy the red benches of the upper chamber for no other reason than that their ancestors did. This grotesque blot on the landscape of British democracy for the most part goes unremarked.

When the Labour Government sought to abolish fox hunting the same forces went into battle – and again managed to lobby their way to a compromise that saw the blood ‘sport’ persist albeit it in a compromised fashion. 

And then in 2010, the upper classes staged a comeback.

David Cameron might initially have sought to obfuscate his origins – his elite background, his Eton education, and his membership of Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon club – but, in the decade that followed, his old chums and school peers have very much evinced a return and cemented their place back at the heart of the establishment.  

For eight of the last 11 years, the country has been led by two old Etonians and propped up by the network of old boys and old friends and old employers. The elite is back.

Much is made of the diversity of the current cabinet, but much less of the fact that 60% of them are privately educated, in a nation where only 7% of people attend private schools. 

I, too, am a product of that educational environment. I attended a fee-paying prep school and a boarding school in the late 1980s where Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson types were two a penny. We were conditioned, albeit subliminally, to believe that we were better than other people; that the Earth was ours to inherit. And my school was very far from being the poshest of the posh. I have no doubt that children at Winchester, Harrow and Eton looked down their noses at us. 

But being very posh is about much more than money or expensive things. Posh is a meme. Posh people can spot other posh people in a crowded room, blindfolded at 50 paces. It’s about language, dress codes, attitudes and habits. It’s about connections and access. It’s about going to the right schools and knowing the right people. It’s about ‘marrying well’. But, most of all, it’s about being part of the club that looks out for other members in it and that considers itself to be well above the hoi polloi.

Cameron, Rees-Mogg and Johnson do not – and never have – inhabited anything akin to the real world. They are interested in power for power’s sake and have no real grasp of the effects of austerity or Brexit on the lives of ordinary people. To them, politics is a sort of parlour game, which exists to while away the time between leaving Oxford and retiring to their country homes and vintage cellars.


Getting Away With It

England’s aristocratic families are the most effective self-preservation society on Earth. Cronyism is rife. They give their old chums jobs even if they can barely operate a stapler.

Just last week, it was reported that Boris Johnson had invited his friend, Ewen Fergusson, who posed alongside him in that famous Bullingdon Club photo, to be on the Committee of Standards in Public Life. When the appointment was criticised, Downing Street declared that he had simply applied for the job and that the role had been filled by “open and fair competition”.

Quite swiftly, the newspapers went silent on the matter and just let it be. Of course they did – they know their place. And the self-appointed ruling classes know theirs. Actual rules are for the little people.

That’s why this Government of elitists has such disregard for them, and their entitlement is as contagious as any virus. 

It is why former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock thought it was acceptable to appoint his old friend Gina Coladangelo as an advisor and then start conducting an affair with her – in the midst of a pandemic. It is why Dominic Cummings thought it was just dandy to drive to Durham and then to Barnard Castle, while he had COVID-19, to test his eyesight. It is why Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were miraculously selected for a ‘pilot scheme’ that would have gifted them a ‘get out self-isolation free’ card after their colleague Sajid Javid tested positive for the Coronavirus. And it is the same entitlement that leads to the Prime Minister putting up wallpaper he can’t afford and taking delivery of £27,000 in organic takeaways that are funded by a Conservative donor. 

All of this is bad enough but every bit as depressing is that millions of ordinary people are happy to let them get on with it. If entitlement is a virus in this country, deference is an epidemic.

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Perhaps voters see Jacob Rees-Mogg quoting bits of Latin that he’s pinched from the dictionary of quotations and imagine that it makes him an intellectual. Someone with breeding; someone better than them; a smart chap; a Downton Abbey squire who wants the best for the ordinary people as he tosses them a shilling for their trouble.

Boris Johnson has shown little or no merit in any of the roles he has enjoyed in public life but is lauded as he plays the role of scruffy-but-brilliant-public-schoolboy-blustering-through; a charming chap who represents the very best of his class. Clever, well-meaning, and if a little Bertie Woosterish then no worse for that.

This is despite the revelation by Dominic Cummings that Johnson pushed to meet the Queen even when it meant that she might be at risk from the Coronavirus. Despite Cummings’ account of how Johnson wanted a policy of ‘herd immunity’ to deal with the pandemic and no more lockdowns because those dying were “essentially all over 80”. Despite Johnson seeing the Telegraph and its billionaire owners as his true employer.

Are we all mad? Or have millions of people simply been brainwashed into the cult of the English class system and believed that they are better off with it?

In 2021, the young are thwarted still; the ordinary English working people are more ‘sat upon’ than ever; power rests once again with a tiny elite of self-regarding ‘uncles’ and the wrong members of the clan remain ever more in control. Orwell would have recognised it all.

We need to talk about class – and we need to call out the nature of this toxic elitism once and for all.

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