Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
You’re familiar, already, with the Left attack on all things Theresa May-ish: that this is a woman with an ache to throw the Tardis dematerialisation lever, and transport the country back in time. Zoe Williams in The Guardian: “If her first gambit, to bring back grammar schools, initially seemed rather wild and random, it has sharpened into a picture: she took the referendum result as a mandate to return us to the 1950s.”
I know I’m boring, and I hate to let reality get in the way of a metaphor. But there’s a reason God/evolution decorates the earth with boring statisticians, which is that sometimes we have to spell out the obvious: returning to the 1950s is impossible. May is quite sane; this is not her objective.
From one perspective, it’s unsurprising that the Left, whose Corbynite platform is a sequence of demands as impossible as they are unpleasant, should seek to pretend that its opponents also offer the impossible as their manifesto. (We’re lunatics, but we’re nicer lunatics ….)
But why are they so frightened? I think the fear is real; which explains the viciousness with which it is expressed (those demonstrators in Birmingham, with their explicit demands to murder Conservatives – just a joke, right?)
They’re nervous of a “Tory hegemony”, and it is this – not so much a Tory majority, which is always temporary – which they seek to rule as inadmissible. In particular, they’re frightened that a particular social class, long targeted for derision and therefore easy to ignore, is about to find its voice.
It’s all there in Theresa May’s Downing Street speech, which has been pored over but I’m not sure, yet, is quite understood by the Left. I think Sean O’Grady in The Independent comes closest; he quotes – approvingly? – the first defining statement of the May era: “If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage.”
The “just managing” classes are the skilled working-class and the lower middle-class – the latter being the endpoint that working-class people desire for their children. I sat up when the Prime Minister said “working class” – she says it a lot, deliberately dropping the “hard-working families”, “ordinary decent people” weasily crap that signals a middle-class distaste for the very object of its supposed concern. The working-class matters to Mrs May; for what they are, and for that which they wish to become.
We’re so used to the irony that the party established to give political voice to the working-class now visibly despises such people (because immigration, because Brexit, for the Blairites; because all that plus because patriotism, for the Corbynistas), that we’ve forgotten the ancient antipathy that the Left also has for the lower middle-class, the citizens of suburbia, where – in a society that works for everyone – the working-class move, as soon as they’re able.
Ah yes, suburbia. When Jonathan Miller, high priest of the North London Left, sought to display his hatred for “Fatcha”, he referred to her: “odious suburban gentility and sentimental, saccharine patriotism, catering to the worst elements of commuter idiocy”.
What could be more despicable than commuting from a suburb for a living? My dears; the noise! the people!
The same hatred runs through John Cleese’s veins. The comedian disagreed with Fraser Nelson, the Editor of the Spectator, about some political point. He reached for an appropriate way to signal this disagreement, and so tweeted:
“Why do we let half-educated tenement Scots run our English press ? Because their craving for social status makes them obedient retainers?”
Fraser is a working-class boy made good; could there be a redder rag to the bull(shit) merchants of the already-wealthy who control the national culture, the medium in which politics swims? No wonder they fear May’s desire to open all this up to just a little bit more competition.
That control – their hegemony – is, as I say, more important to them than any election. Because if you control the national culture – the substrate upon which politics takes place – then you control the parameters of debate. You can rule some ideas – Brexit, for example – off limits, before a single vote is cast.
But what – to quote a character in an early Ruth Rendell novel – is supposed to be so wrong with suburbia? A desire for a nice bit of garden and good (selective! free!) state schools; the desire to be unsurprised, should one hear English spoken on a bus; the desire for one’s country to have its own bloody passport, for God’s sake – to list just a few Mayist-Tory objectives which leave the Left spluttering with saliva-specked fury – these aren’t desires, shall we say, uncommon to those whose grandparents were in service, whose working-class parents went out on shift or opened their cornershop before dawn, so that their tiny “bought hoose” was warm and that their own children – I’m talking of myself, of course – had enough time and encouragement to study. So that they - I - could end up in suburbia, from where I commute, despicably, to and from work.
Perhaps I’m only a half-educated tenement Scot myself, Mr Cleese, though actually we were more “spam valley” than Victorian slum. But I know my class enemy when I see him, whether he’s an unfunny comic with delusions of relevance, or a fat-cat spiv who screws over his workers. Whether an android ex-minister elevated to BBC leadership, or an unjailed banker squawking about bonuses. I see you: the trade union boss who makes a hell of that daily commute. I know you: the apparatchik who’d sell her “principles” for a piece of dead ermine to wrap around her throat.
And for the first time in a long time, I think my Prime Minister sees you all just as clearly.
We – the group of people too rich to qualify for free school meals but too poor to be indifferent to the taxation which follows Blairite public spending; the people who’d never cast out a loved one, but don’t feel that producing children to live without fathers is for the best; the people who enjoy freedom to think, but wonder why governments tolerate the enemies of our free and good society – we’re not only plenty big enough to swing an election.
Given enough time, we might also rewrite the culture, away from its Leftist hegemony, and tilt it, just a little, towards a celebration of our bourgeois instincts. Thus the fear – and the hysteria – of the Left. They never believed the proles would actually learn to write.
I’m well aware that George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying was sarcastic about, not a paean to, the lower middle-classes: but the values of the lower-middle-classes win, which is the novel’s point (Gordon, the protagonist, takes a job with an advertising agency, in order to marry and support Rosemary, the woman who is carrying his baby.) Gordon and Rosemary agree to decorate their flat with the titular plant, emblem of lower middle-class respectability.
Time to update the party logo, Mrs May? The Oak Tree was a fine symbol of the stability required in the aftermath of the Brown Terror, and its contingent financial carnage.
But to bend genres slightly, I can’t help feeling … how shall we put this? That a new day has dawned – perhaps – has it not? Every class will have its day. Welcome, then. Welcome, to The Day of the Aspidistras.