Revenge of the Toffs

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

Henry Wismayer
4 min readNov 17, 2019

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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.

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Henry Wismayer

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