The relish with which establishment snobs ridicule John Prescott is utterly offensive
Monday June 5, 2006
It is almost a full decade since I first wrote that John Prescott was the best deputy leader in the history of the Labour party. That remains my view. His strength lies in his attitude towards the job. Most of his predecessors - Herbert Morrison, Aneurin Bevan, George Brown, Denis Healey and that man whose name nobody now remembers - were failed leaders who won a consolation prize. Prescott values the job in its own right. He has, in consequence, been a proper (if slightly over-loyal) deputy. The undoubted errors, of which we have learned during the past couple of months, do not change that.
Happy though I am to enumerate the qualities and qualifications that Prescott brings to the office of deputy prime minister, I have never suggested that his value is even remotely related to what are crudely called "his working-class credentials". That suggestion, unhappily now made by his friends as well as his enemies, is equally patronising to the party and to Prescott himself. It is also offensive.
The definition of social status, as currently applied to Prescott by his detractors, is wholly unrelated to Karl Marx's view that class is determined by the nature of the relationship with capital. There is a clear implication that, unlike other politicians who have risen from modest (even humble) beginnings, Prescott still eats his peas off his knife and fans his tea with his cap.
The real objection to his occupancy of Dorneywood and his afternoon break on the croquet lawn was based on the feeling that people like him should not live in houses like that or spend their leisure hours on pastimes which are associated with the long, sunlit afternoon of Edwardian England. The humbug about Prescott receiving undiminished perks for a diminished job is camouflage.
Michael Heseltine was a deputy prime minister without departmental responsibilities. Because he owned a rather better house, he chose not to use Dorneywood. But if he had been "caught" (that is the extraordinary word the critics used) playing croquet on a Thursday afternoon, he would not have attracted a similar campaign of vilification. Heseltine is a gent - Shrewsbury, Oxford. Houses like Dorneywood are his natural home.
You will recall that once upon a time, Nicholas Soames - a character not unlike Boy Mulcaster in Brideshead Revisited - used to refer to the deputy prime minister as "Giuseppe" and, claiming to mistake him for a waiter, order a gin and tonic. I always hoped that Prescott saw the inverted compliment that was buried in that attempt at wit. Nobody could possibly imagine Soames - a man born with his mouth crammed full of silver spoons - fighting his way up from ship steward to cabinet minister. But whether or not the jibe hurt, its class overtones are beyond dispute. Do not tell me that the war is over. The establishment fights on with sneers dressed up to look like humour.
Living, as these days I do, in the country, I never had any doubt that the battle lines in the fox-hunting conflict were drawn along class boundaries. But it was not the abolitionists who waged war in those terms. It was the landowners who believed that the country - that is the country as a whole - belonged to them as it had belonged to their ancestors. And they were damned if they were going to allow the proletariat to tell them what they could and could not do on it. The same attitude motivates the proprietors of big estates who ploughed up their land rather than concede access under "right-to-roam" legislation. Sometimes they lost financially by the change of use. But they kept the yobs at bay.
I make no apology for being a class warrior in a non-combatant sort of way. The interests of the rich and poor rarely coincide. And, as John Rawls tells us, it is the duty, of democratic governments to "adjudicate between conflicting demands". That requires the government of the day to decide which side it is on and obliges the rest of us to make up our minds about which cause we support. I know where I stand.
There is something inherently irrational, as well as fundamentally offensive, about the notion that a certain sort of person - habits as well as upbringing, tastes as well as education - has a right to rule and to the perks of ruling. Had I not been on John Prescott's side six weeks ago, I certainly would be now.
Originally published in The Guardian