Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Class war? Oh no, John, no
by Libby Purves

Class war? Oh no, John, no. Comment - Times Online

“WHY DID YOU do it, Johnny? Throw it all away?” I have spent much of the morning serenading the Deputy Prime Minister. The lyric is from Sondheim’s Assassins and was originally addressed to John Wilkes Booth, who shot Lincoln. “Some say it was your voice had gone/ Some say it was booze/ Some say you killed a country, John/ Because of bad reviews . . .”
Well, it can’t be that. Mr Prescott remains commendably broad-shouldered when it comes to soaking up abuse. But why did he have to restart the class war and shoot a ragged hole in everything his party has built? “It’s the Eton mob, isn’t it?” he mused. “I always feel better fighting class anyway. Bring the spirit back into the Labour Party!” To which the only reply is: “Why did you do it Johnny, calling it a cause? Thought you’d get applause?”

Now, Mr Prescott is not stupid. I lose patience with him over rural planning, but on school reform he talks sense. There really is a risk of a two-tier system which excludes the poorest from the best schools — although he ought to acknowledge that we already have something almost worse: a baroque multi-tier system. Less educated parents have most difficulty working it even now. But it is anachronistic to label such parents “working-class”, since there are plenty of working-class families with an immense respect for education. It was plain insulting to trot out the old calumny that while middle-class parents care about education, it is “sadly not the same for working-class parents”. I hope he didn’t mean that.

But broadly speaking, Mr Prescott is right to question the Bill. He is wrong, though, to restart an old-fashioned class war. There are a thousand reasons why this assassination of common sense will lead to disaster. The foxhunting Bill was bad enough — a criminal waste of parliamentary time and energy, having little to do with animal welfare and everything to do with class revenge. This was made explicit by many of its adherents (remember Peter Bradley writing exultantly: “We ought at last to own up: it was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom, it was class war . . . the politics of power, who governs Britain”). But despite that ghastly interlude we seemed to have moved on, away from the cartoon politics of toffs v proles. The last thing that either posh-boy Blair or gruff-boy Brown need right now is John Prescott jeering at Etonians.

Think, John, think! Look around you! Try to remember that Eton produced George Orwell, Jo Grimond, Tam Dalyell; Clement Attlee was at Haileybury, William Morris at Marlborough. Next time you sing that fine song about The Very Fat Man who Waters the Workers’ Beer, note that Robert Maxwell and Peter Rachman were penniless refugees and that there is no particular twang of Eton or Harrow about the myriad conmen exposed every week on Watchdog, perpetrating rip-offs on the British poor.

Forget class war, see real injustices. Confront poverty, target crime and fear, clear up drug dealers, gun culture, filthy vandalised housing. Throw your passion into helping the poor into education, not jeering at imaginary toffs. Think practical policies, not “bringing the spirit back into the Labour party” by striking Edwardian attitudes. Stop fighting silly wars against things like the Oxford admissions system. Look back with pleasure at the great social battles of the early 20th century; admire the old heroic struggles that won the right to universal healthcare, housing and a social safety net. But then accept that today’s problems are different.

True, upward social mobility has measurably decreased in recent decades, and that is a ghastly indictment of the school system more than anything else. But it is not evil “toffs” who are in the driving seat. Nor does the endlessly maligned “middle class” particularly need a kicking. The enemies of progress today are bureaucracy, inefficiency, over-regulation, stifling centralisation and criminal rip-offs. (Britain has neither followed more civilised countries in outlawing loan rates of up to 300 per cent, nor cleared up rogue lenders. The Office of Fair Trading is more keen on pestering public school bursars than on defending small suppliers against supermarket bullying. And so on.)

Reigniting the old class war is also politically pointless. People simply do not group themselves into tight, fighting communities any more. There is no such thing as a class traitor, and modish writers who pretend that there is are generally living hilariously middle-class lives on the sly. Today we are fragmented into families, separated in our ambitions by consumerism, television, individualism and ever tinier domestic units. Most people that Mr Prescott thinks of as working-class would be insulted, regarding themselves as middle; moreover, they may well be out of sympathy with still poorer people. They might actually rather like Boris Johnson — he makes them laugh, he takes a joke against himself, he talks robustly about political correctness, he has a feeling for the poor; while they may heartily dislike the local yobs who without a thought of working-class solidarity keep throwing things at their windows. They are probably very much afraid of higher taxes, and don ’t trust the Government to give value . “Toffs” are not high on their list of enemies.

We need a lot of things. We need confidence in public services, honesty from government, universally good schools, permission for communities to make their own decisions. We need a police force that responds to actual crime instead of sending two minibuses to arrest a quiet lady peace protester, or nagging Catholic mothers for misrepresenting gays.

Get real, John: people won’t rally to your mothy old banner. Attack the middle class and you offend the majority who all think they’re in it. Attack toffs, and you waste your breath. There aren’t many and they don’t run things. Not unless they’re rather good specimens who got to high public office on merit. Please, John. Stop the war! Peace on Earth!

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