August 18, 2020

In the press and on social-media, one constantly reads indignant denunciations of every variety of snobbery imaginable: “class snobbery”, “Remainer snobbery”, “educational snobbery”, “literary snobbery”, “beer snobbery”, “salt snobbery”, “wine snobbery”, “music snobbery” and even, “audio-book snobbery”.

Why have we become so obsessed with snobbery — or the snobbery of other people, at least? You might think: has it not ever been thus? “Snobbery is the religion of England,” wrote Frank Harris in the 1920s. And it was Orwell who claimed that nobody was as snobbish as the English.

But it’s worth remembering that in the 1960s, with the celebration of youth and the new classlessness, snobbery seemed old-fashioned and foolish. It was seen as the social vice of suburban social climbers and downwardly mobile toffs. Snobbery was doomed because it had no place in a modern, meritocratic Britain — or so its critics assumed.

We would laugh at snobbery and the Great British Snobs of TV sit-coms such as Hyancith Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life and Cyril Blamire in Last of the Summer Wine. But now snobbery is no laughing matter.

It has even undergone a kind of conceptual make-over. For social scientists and public intellectuals, snobbery as a concept once lacked substance — at least when it came to the analysis of serious issues like class conflict or capitalism. But since Brexit and the victory of Trump, snobbery — along with elitism — dominates much of our serious political and cultural analysis both in the UK and the USA.  For many it’s a way of understanding the world and what’s gone wrong with it.

For the Right, snobbery plays the same role as racism does for the woke Left: an ugly social evil that must be exposed and expunged from society. And in the same way that the woke-Left sees institutional racism everywhere, so the Right sees institutional snobbery everywhere too — in the BBC, The Guardian, academia and the arts.

Anti-racists believe that along with explicit racism there’s a hidden implicit racism at work: a whole substratum of assumptions and codes that needs to be teased out to reveal the truth of what white people are really saying. For anti-snobbists too, snobbery exists in a series of codes and assumptions. They hear the dog-whistles of snobbery everywhere.

You may think that you don’t like reality TV because it’s mindless rubbish, but anti-snobbists claim the real reason is that you don’t like the spectacle of working-class people — and you don’t like the sort of people who watch reality TV, either! And so you’re a double snob!

And you may think that a holiday in France, a night at the opera or drinking wine from Tuscany are just the innocent pleasures of life: wrong! According to a New Statesman columnist, these are the “culture tokens” by which the snobbish middle-class, “state and restate their presumed superiority over the common masses”.

In snob-sensitive Britain, not only do you have to be careful about appearing to criticise other people’s taste, but declaring your own. The writer Candia McWilliam was once labelled a “super-snob” for saying she loved ”reading Villiers de L’Isle Adam while eating a pomelo”. OK, it’s a touch pretentious, but snobbish? I don’t think so.

If all this talk of snobbery were just so much social-media banter without any wider consequences it wouldn’t matter. But in the same way that racism or transphobia can cost you your job, so can snobbery, as the MP Andrew Mitchell discovered in 2012 when he was alleged to have called a policeman “a fucking pleb”. Two years later Labour’s Emily Thornberry, then the Shadow Attorney General, tweeted a photo of a house in her constituency in Kent with three flags of St. George and a white van in the front of it. Whatever her intentions were — her tweet carried no comment — the mere whiff of snobbery cost Thornberry her job too.

Politicians and public-figures now show off their man-of-the-people credentials by displaying their love of football, pop music or the latest Netflix series everyone is watching. If you’re an old Etonian in public life with a passion for the works of Seneca, best keep it to yourself. And that’s exactly what the Latin-loving Boris Johnson has done ever since his Brexit rebranding as a man of the people. During the run-up to his 2019 victory Johnson was asked how he liked to relax and told his talkRADIO audience he likes to make “models of buses” and “paint passengers.” Clearly his days of quoting Virgil and wearing a toga are over.

Snobbery in our post-Brexit era has become something more associated with the liberal-Left than the conservative Right. It wasn’t always so. Snobbery used to be most visible among the Right — unapologetic snobs included Evelyn Waugh, Auberon Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Powell and the Oxford don A.L. Rowse.

That is not to say that the Left was never snobbish. But as the self-appointed champions of the working-class they saved their snobbish comments for the middle-class, or the “bourgeoisie” as they were contemptuously called. Looking down on Suburban Man, his subservient Stepford-Wife and 2.4 kids — with his ghastly taste in decor, his middlebrow music and books — was perfectly acceptable and even admired, as the success of Mike Leigh’s 1977 BBC television drama Abigail’s Party showed.

In those days though, that was called social satire. Snobbery is when you laugh at the working-class; satire is laughing at the middle-class. And we’re still mocking and laughing at the middle-class, only we’re too worried about snobbery towards the working-class to notice or care. Owen Jones in his book Chavs (2011) claimed that prejudice towards the working-class was the only socially acceptable form of prejudice; now when it comes to snobbery it’s the only form of prejudice that causes concern.

I accept that no one is going to take a stand against being snobby about us poor maligned middle-class folks with our much-mocked “first-world problems” and our curated coffee fixations. I get it. But if anti-snobbists really believe that snobbery is wrong — and they do — then why not?

Britain really became snob-sensitive in the wake of the EU referendum of 2016. Many commentators claimed that a new wave of snobbery had been unleashed by Remainers. And that’s partly true. Too often I have heard my Remainer friends bemoan those “ghastly” Brexiteers. That said, over 16 million people voted to remain in the EU — they can’t all be snobs, can they?

We all agree that snobbery is wrong. The question is: how wrong? How terrible a social problem is it? Considering the fury it provokes, you’d think snobbery were on par with racism, anti-Semitism or sexism. And for the anti-snob, it is. Bryan Appleyard in the Spectator magazine argues that “snobbery is exactly like racism” and that while it may be occasionally funny, snobbery is always, writes Appleyard, “evil”.   

Is it really evil or something merely offensive?  It’s true that like racism or anti-Semitism, snobbery is rooted in prejudice. But there is a prejudice that causes real harm — physical injury and emotional damage — and prejudice that is shallow and does no real serious and lasting damage.

We make a big fuss about snobbery but I suspect that its actual presence on people’s daily lives is minimal. You don’t find YouTube videos of passengers on public transport being subjected to vicious tirades about their cheap Primark clothes, vulgar jewellery or their dropped ‘h’s by a drunken snob, clutching a vintage bottle of Chateau Du Ponce.

And what of the serious damage caused by snobbery? Are mosques fire bombed and Jews attacked on the street because of snobbery? (The snob raises their nose, not their fists.) Does snobbery create poor health, homelessness, family breakdown, mental illness, suicide or drug addiction the way poverty can? I don’t think so. Does anyone really believe that if snobbery totally disappeared that it would make a substantial difference to the quality of everyday life of ordinary people?

Anti-snobbists complain when the working-class are shamed on social media — but do they really feel ashamed? Maybe it’s — dare I say it — a bit snobbish to assume that working-class people are so fragile they’d be hurt by some ephemeral tweet from some snobbish twat?

The Right is always complaining that people — particularly the young — lack any kind of resilience or fortitude when faced with words or ideas that make them uncomfortable or hurt their feelings. Such people are usually dismissed as “snowflakes” — unless they are working-class people who allegedly have been a victim of middle-class liberal snobbery.

The idea that working-class people across the land are sitting at home and in pubs seething with indignation at the snobbery of middle-class people at north London dinner parties is absurd. Of course if you ask such people they will criticise the more blatant forms of snobbery. But most of the time, I suspect, they don’t even think about these matters. Why should they care what such people think?

And there’s some academic evidence that they don’t. In Reacting to Reality Television the sociologists Bev Skeggs and Helen Wood examined the hostile and often snobbish attitudes towards working-class women who appeared in reality TV shows. These women were criticised for being too fat, for drinking too much, smoking too much and having too many children — all the clichés about “chavs” rolled into one.

But how did these women react to such snobbish attacks? Were they angry or hurt? Did they feel ashamed? No, they responded with admirable indifference. Professor Skeggs said on a BBC Radio 4 programme on snobbery, that these women who had been subjected to such abuse didn’t “care about a lot of these middle-class judgments being imposed on them. They just didn’t notice it.”

By defending the white working-class from middle-class snobbery it allows one to appear a true egalitarian — without having to believe in equality. It’s curious that people are so angry about snobbery, but not the inequities of class or the inequalities of capitalism that snobbery is based on.

If anyone is to be pitied it’s not the working-class person who is looked down upon, but the snob doing the looking. Believing in your own superiority — because of your birth or consumer choices — means that you are in the grips of a terrible and dangerous form of self-delusion. The snob is trapped in a self-fulfilling fallacy. Like the man who thinks he’s Napoleon or Jesus Christ, the snob needs our help to get back to reality, rather than our condemnation.