How do they do it? To be more exact and honest, how do we do it? Some of us, that is to say. I am referring to the mysterious tenacity of poshly educated people in British politics. Tony Blair went to a posh school. Now it looks odds on that the Conservatives will pick another posh, after a generation of not-so-poshes, starting with Edward Heath. Why? What is the magic that the canniest and most ruthless of us public school educated people which keeps the most prominent of our kind so prominent?
Part of it is that the education of the non-posh majority has, in Britain, been severely damaged, in the name of advancing the non-poshes. That is certainly part of the story.
But I think that another quality that people like David Cameron manage to exude ï¿½ honestly or dishonestly, it really does not matter which ï¿½ is: humility. Personally I tend to find this type insufferable, which may be because I got to know these people close up when they were still perfecting their personas, and in some cases before they were even trying and were just being pure bastards. The nastier the bastard, the thicker the veneer of humility that they later glue on, in my experience. But if you are not intimately acquainted with these nice, nice chaps, that humble act can fool you. Plus, in a few cases, the humility is genuine and was there from the start. Anyway, Cameron’s type radiates the notion that he only got where he is by being very lucky. The cards he was dealt made Cameron what he is, Cameron seems to say. Without these cards, the undoubted skill with which he played the cards he did get would have availed him nothing. One, you know, does one’s best, but one has been fortunate, extremely fortunate.
The trouble with the meritocrats whom the likes of Blair and Cameron come up against is that they seem to believe that they merit their cratness. They deserve it. Gordon Brown, for example, suggests to me a man who not only thinks that himself to be an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer, but also a man who thinks that he deserves to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and for that matter deserves to be Prime Minister, instead of recognising with his every public word and gesture that he also needed a hell of a lot of luck to get anywhere near either job. Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that these people do not work twenty hour days, day after day after day, year after year, and study the grease on their greasy pole with obsessive attention. But you can work fifty brilliantly accomplished hours every day of your life and still not be Prime Minister or now, anything near it, if you are, to note just one of many uncontrollable political disabilities, bald. Or if the hair you do have is ginger. Maybe those rules will change, but for now, there they are. My point is that maybe, yes, there is a sense in which Gordon Brown deserves everything he has had, and may still have coming. But the same applies to thousands of others just as deserving, who came nowhere near to his eminence.
Democratic politics is an extraordinarily flooky business. Timing, for instance, is everything. One basic reason why Cameron looks like winning the Conservative leadership is that he is younger than his rivals. All of them, but not he, are members of a fatally tainted generation of Conservatives who did well, or who thought they would do well, or who are thought to have thought that they would do well ï¿½ who enjoyed ï¿½ Thatcherism. Smug bastards, screw the whole damn lot of them, is the view of the electorate. All the expensively educated charm in the world would have been of no use to Cameron if he had been ten years older than he is, and had spent his early political years feeling ï¿½ or merely looking ï¿½ smug about being a member of Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
I deliberately did not read this article by Matthew Parris before writing the above about Cameron. I but now have. Parris notes that the toffs are back, but does not really say why.
I have already explained some of why toffs can be more likeable, but why is mere likeability now considered important? As Parris points out, for a generation before Blair, it was not. Ghastly nouveau riche meritocratic peasants dominated the Conservatives for several decades. And Labour has not been in the habit of picking obviously posh leaders, not since Ramsay MacDonald. Only now are the toffs “back in the saddle”. What gives?
I think it is that the British now believe that they can afford the luxury of only paying attention to likeable leaders. David Cameron, you might say, is a bet on Britain continuing to have a quiet life of genteel decline, with no events.
But if there is a job to be done, such as trade unions to be crushed and national bankruptcy to be dodged, a war to be won, a welfare state to be built, then disliked or socially inept leaders elbow their annoying and embarrassing way to the top and do whatever needs to be done. Thatcher had her silly voice lessons and her all round overbearingness, quite aside from the amazing handicap of being female. Churchill and Attlee, so different in so many ways, also had unlikeability in common. Churchill, although educated as a toff, was ludicrously over-the-top in manner until an over-the-top job (thwarting Adolf Hitler) hove into view and rescued him from ludicrousness, while Attlee was so far under the top as to be invisible, as Churchill in particular loved to piont out. But they each got their various jobs done, and were then dumped as soon as they had done them, the Churchill and Attlee jobs having been laid end to end.
But when there is nothing important to be done, toffdom is reinstalled, in the person first of the sanctified post-war Churchill, of Eden, and then when that went wrong too, Harold Macmillan. And now, we have nice Tony Blair, the Hugh Grant of British politics, and Labour’s answer to Macmillan.
The Wilson/Heath/Callaghan period can now be understood as a series of attempts to do what Thatcher finally did do, namely “get Britain moving”, as Wilson put it, with Callaghan foolishly imagining that a kind of Old Labour toffdom (“What crisis?”) was relevant and sufficient, when it was neither.
But now, it is believed, we are back to an age of post-ideological calm, or settlement, during which a nice guy who did not do the ideology can surrender to that ideological settlement, gracefully. Hence Tony Blair. And Cameron is the Conservative Party’s way of acknowledging that niceness now counts for more than getting anything done, or anything changed.
Interestingly, the prominent Conservative who now disagrees with this most strongly is Ken Clarke. On Europe I find Clarke repulsive, to which he has now added the vice of lying about being repulsive, which he at least used not to do. But of all the Conservative candidates in this leadership election, he has been the one most given to denouncing Gordon Brown and all his works. If the British people ever decide that they again need someone to get Britain moving, again, well, we know how Blair and Brown will fare. They will not. They are the ones now presiding, Macmillan style, over the slow-down. But would Cameron do any better? He is not the type.
Maybe these guys will barge through on the rails. Of the two pictured at the other end of that link, the first looks to be rather ginger, and the other ï¿½ who seems happy to be known as Vince – is bald.