Revenge of the Toffs

Britain’s class system is back. Did it ever go away?

A couple of months ago, not far from where I live, Nigel Farage attended the 400th anniversary of Dulwich College, a private school in leafy south London. According to people I know who went along, he spent the evening surrounded by a coterie of men in pin-stripe blazers. Word is he was an unpopular, marginal figure at school, but you wouldn’t know it to see the alumni fawning over him now. After all, now he was a kingmaker, a friend of Presidents! A man capable of throwing the markets into a lucrative tailspin with one pronouncement. The outsider had made good.

You hear much the same rumours of Farage holding court at Dulwich & Sydenham Golf Club, where he is reportedly a regular. I imagine that these are places of safety for him — opportunities to banter and chunter with his true fraternity. Places where the mask of demagogue can be cast aside. Another pint of ale, garcon. Actually, make it champagne!

When I imagine Farage in these situations, attended by his jovial, privileged flatterers, the depressing reality of our political moment — and of this coming General Election — comes into focus. Some still see him as the Great Disruptor. What I see is the wannabe toff who was shunned by the Tory establishment, and so went rogue, and kicked his way in through the back-door. There is no question in my mind that this was always his principal motivation — not to transform politics for the people, but to have the true gentry, the likes of Johnson and Rees-Mogg, fete him as one of their own.

I think you had to go to a British private school, as I did in the days when the assisted place system gave kids from less-monied backgrounds access to them, to understand the rarefied social currents at play here. To appreciate how the role of these schools is to polish mediocrity until it becomes entitlement.

For a time, these institutions, and the silver-spoon minority for whom they were established, gave the rest of this country a reprieve. The plebs had died in too many wars; the threat from organized labour had become too potent. Out of this hiatus in the vicious exploitation of the workers by this country’s upper class, grew a precious social contract — universal suffrage, a welfare state, the NHS.

I guess it couldn’t last. There is only so long that people whose inherited purpose in life is the acquisition of power and money can be expected to moderate their pursuit of it. Thatcher arrives, Blair follows. Society atomizes, becomes malleable, under an onslaught of stratified consumerism. At first, the elites contented themselves with making money through semi-criminal enterprises in the city. But when those mechanisms imploded, when the clay feet of their supposedly safe economic model were exposed, they began to look elsewhere.

There was still money being squandered on the common good. A whole public realm just begging to be asset-stripped.

Looking to their cousins across The Atlantic, they found a way to buttress the old hierarchy while maintaining a facade of democratic freedom: foment a culture war. Pretend you are champions of a universally beneficent economic law — trust in “trickle-down,” worship the “wealth-creators.” Blame the inevitable dysfunction and precarity that follows on the “other”, whether migrants, scroungers, Europe. If the people grow restive, throw them some more debt, start a war, and trust they will go numb. If discontent solidifies into bona fide opposition, paint its proponents as unpatriotic, self-interested, bigoted. Accuse them of that of which you yourself are guilty. Use your placemen in the press and libertarian “think tanks” to sow the poison.

This is how you maintain control over the money and the power. The other consequences — for job security, for national cohesion, stability, sanity — never entered this equation. The descendants of those who once sat back in gilded state-rooms while young men died for them in foreign fields wanted their country back. They just had to wrest themselves free of regulatory Brussels first.

There is one thing that it is crucial to understand about the mindset of British Conservatism. It is that the capacity of those in power to exculpate their responsibility for the ramifications of their own law-making does not have an upper limit. They will cling to their false creed of meritocracy — which holds that whatever riches they possess were earned, the poor’s degradation deserved — until it drags this country back to the Victorian age. If you don’t believe me, travel to a developing country, and ask yourself how its wealthy businessmen and politicians can look at themselves in the mirror while a thousand children beg for food on their cities’ streets.

And when the end result of their neglect and self-interest come to bear — when a quarter of the country is under water, and climate migrants are clamouring at its receded shore — they will retreat to their castles, or to Mars, or whatever, and shake their heads at the plebs’ lack of “common sense.”

For as long as the people of Britain stand disunited, this is the country’s direction of travel. It was never a concerted masterplan. It is just the coalescence of a thousand opportunists manoeuvring for personal gain, day after day, until it becomes a national destiny. The class system was always this country’s scourge, and it is back with a vengeance.

If you are not rich, yet support Farage, or Johnson, and their ilk, I’m afraid you are the marks in the con of the century. When they win this election, they will meet up in the golf club, and they will raise a glass of Bollinger to you.

“Here’s to the plebs.” It’s all going swimmingly.

Essays, features and assorted ramblings for over 80 publications, inc. NYT Magazine, WaPo, NYT, The Atlantic, WSJ, Nat Geo, and TIME:

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