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The Tory problem with poshness The old symbols of privilege still have the power to do the Conservatives real harm

Tally ho to electoral disaster (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Tally ho to electoral disaster (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

October 6, 2020   8 mins

Should the Conservatives go to war? The culture war, that is. It’s reported that some senior Tories want to make a point of pushing back against political correctness. Others are afraid of saying boo to a woke goose. 

What should really worry them, however, is the class war — because, like or not, the Tories still have a problem with poshness. 

It might not seem that way. With the party winning seats like Workington and Blyth Valley one could argue that the whole “Tory toff” thing doesn’t matter anymore. At the last election, the Conservatives not only got more support than Labour did from low income voters, they also got more support from low income voters than they did from high income voters.

However, that’s precisely why the party should be worried. When a crucial part of your electoral coalition isn’t accustomed to voting for you, that’s cause to be extra careful about the things that always put them off you in the past. The Conservatives remain vulnerable to the lingering suspicion that they’re a party of the upper class, for the upper class.

If you want an example of that, cast your mind back to May and the two weeks’ hate directed at Dominic Cummings. The level of fury went well beyond the usual Twitter pile-on — and well beyond the population of diehard Remainers desperate for revenge. Nor was this a simple case of someone in power hypocritically breaking the rules — indeed, no rule-breaking was ever proven.

As was laboriously explained, the Cummings family had driven from London to County Durham so they could self-isolate on a country estate in an empty cottage away from the main house — thus the lockdown restrictions were fully observed. But it wasn’t the technicalities the public paid attention to, what registered were words like “country estate”, “empty cottage” and “main house”. It may have been more of a farm than an estate and the cottage far from luxurious, but the damage was done. Once again, the Tories were seen as living in a different world.

Then last month another example came along. The “rule of six” was hard enough to swallow, but the news that grouse shooting had been exempted left a bitter aftertaste. It was, of course, part of a much wider exemption for organised outdoor activities, but the nexus between wealth, land ownership and blood sports is pure poison for the Tories.

Just look what happened in the 2017 general election when a seemingly unassailable lead in the polls was all but wiped out. That collapse didn’t start with the botched manifesto launch, but earlier in the campaign when Theresa May declared her support for a vote on repealing the law on fox hunting. This went down like a lead balloon — or a pheasant full of shot.

You’d think by now that the Conservative Party would understand that the whole killing-animals-for-sport thing does not play well for them. When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair understood it very well — which is why he spared so much Parliamentary time to the ban on hunting with hounds. It was hardly the highest animal welfare priority, but it got the Tories just where Blair wanted them. In his era-defining speech to the 1999 Labour Party conference, he described his opponents as “the party of fox hunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers” — and that was them stitched-up for the next two elections.

Like I’ve said before, nothing says “same old Tories” like posh people riding off to kill something. But why is this image so potent? What vein of public disquiet was Blair tapping into? The politics of envy? Reverse snobbery? Ill-informed urban sentiment about country life? Maybe. But the man on a horse evokes something much darker — an atavistic fear instilled by millennia of violence and oppression.

To understand just how deep all of this stuff goes, we need to go back to the very dawn of history — and a crucial development that shaped the world we live in today.

I’m referring to a phenomenon that concerns the languages we speak and how they relate to one another. The English language, for instance, is part of larger group of Germanic tongues (e.g. German, Dutch, Swedish etc). In turn, this Teutonic branch is part of a yet bigger family — the Indo-European languages. As the name suggests, it includes just about all the European languages, and many from the Indian sub-continent too (plus various places in between). It’s an incredible thought, but Welsh, English, Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, Albanian, Greek, Armenian, Farsi, Urdu and Bengali are all descended from a common root.

We don’t know for sure who spoke this ancestral tongue (which linguists call Proto-Indo-European or PIE), but somehow they and their descendants spread it across a vast area — as a result of which most of the indigenous languages went extinct. The Basque language is one of the few surviving fragments of the linguistic diversity that must have once existed in Europe. So what happened? How did those PIE-speakers sweep all before them? 

The most widely-held theory is that their original homeland was somewhere in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia. These were people of the steppe and the secret of their success was that they domesticated the horse. As a result they acquired superpowers: the ability to travel across distances and strike with a force that other peoples couldn’t hope to match. In all likelihood , they became conquerors — and when one ruling class replaces another, the language often changes too. 

The terrifying power of the mounted warrior may also be the origin of the centaur myth. To people who have never seen horses, or at least never learned to ride them, the sight of man and beast moving together as one suggests a monstrous hybrid of the two. In ancient Greek culture, the centaur was the personification of chaos — of the barbarian charging out of the wilderness.

Horsemanship doesn’t just confer speed and strength, but also height. It literally separates those on top from those below. Away from the battlefield, the man on a horse is a symbol of the class system. In this respect, the connection to hunting for sport is especially potent. 

Once upon a time, we were all hunter-gatherers. But then came farming, which allowed our numbers to grow. Or maybe it was our growing numbers that required us to start farming. Either way, game became scarce and was monopolised by the ruling class. They ate meat; we ate grass. They remained hunters; we became poachers. 

And this, I think, is our real problem with “country sports” and all the class associations that go with it. Contemporary concerns over animal welfare are a thin veneer over something much, much older — a cultural memory of subjugation. When the Countryside Alliance and other groups campaigned to save hunting, they implored the public to consider just how much hunting means to some rural communities. The reason why this failed is not because these practices have no meaning to the rest of the population, but because they still do.

The so-called “High Tories” really ought to understand this stuff. They’re the ones always going on about custom and tradition: the inherited intuitions that link the present to the past. And, they’re right — these things are real and they matter. But they matter to everyone — the descendants of downtrodden peasants, not just the men on horses.

Hunting is not the only signifier of poshness; schooling is a big part of it too. The exclusivity of an expensive private education obviously leaves the state educated majority on the outside, but that’s not all — there’s also the bit about people sending their children away. Hogwarts not withstanding, the idea of boarding school is one that horrifies most of us muggles. In our increasingly diverse society, we’ve become attuned to cultural differences — but is there a bigger cultural difference than this one? I mean, if personal circumstances don’t force you to, then why on earth would you send your kids to live somewhere else? And not even to a family home!

But perhaps family is the point — the creation of a superfamily. From time-to-time, human societies have aimed to create in-group solidarity through the collective rearing of children. The Shakers in America, for instance, or the Kibbutzim in Israel. The ultimate example, however, was ancient Sparta, where boys were taken away from their mothers at the age of seven and raised in military barracks. In its own brutal fashion, it worked. Spartan society was so effectively militarised and unified that they held off the Persians, defeated the Athenians and controlled a local slave population — the helots — that was many times bigger than their own. I’m not making a direct comparison between Sparta’s nightmare society and our own dear toffs, but there are… echoes. 

As a rite of passage, young Spartan men were encouraged to steal from, attack and even murder the helots. This wasn’t just a test of military prowess, it was a means of dominating the subject population through state-sanctioned terror. It’s a tactic that ruling classes have used at many points in the past — to intimidate other people and to initiate their own.

Again, this isn’t something we’ve entirely forgotten. When we hear tales of anti-social behaviour on the part of exclusive drinking clubs at elite universities we don’t just write it off as the normal student rowdiness. The spectacle of privileged young men throwing their weight around — and their money — provokes a visceral loathing that goes much deeper than the mere politics of envy. 

Collectively, we remember. 

When he became Conservative leader, David Cameron tried to detoxify the Tory brand. It was out with the “nasty party” and in with “hug-a-husky”. “Banging on about Europe” was replaced with the “Big Society”. But in conflating the nastiness of the nasty party with cultural conservatism, he’d forgotten all about class. That photograph of him in his student days posing with fellow members of the Bullingdon Club did lasting damage. Though comparable to Blair at the height of his popularity, at no point did the electorate ever take Cameron to heart — he was never the people’s Prime Minister, nor could he be. 

Looking back, through such instruments as the Sasha Swire diaries, we can see him continually surrounded by a coterie of his own class. His closest advisors, his social circle, were of a type — not the tweedy, LARPing Rees-Mogg variety — but nevertheless out-of-touch, no matter how modernised they considered themselves to be. He, and they, would discover the real modern Britain on the 23 June 2016, but by then it was too late.

When Theresa May took over, she was described by Westminster insiders as “unclubbable”, but to the voters that was a blessed relief. Unfortunately, and as mentioned above, she too failed to understand the Tory problem with class; but at least she wasn’t part of it. Never forget that she pushed the Conservative vote share way above what Cameron ever achieved.

May pioneered the strategy that Boris Johnson perfected, but that brings me to the apparent Achilles’ Heel of my entire argument. How can I say that poshness is problem for the Tories given the result of 2019? Is Boris not poshness personified? Does he not appear in that very same photograph as David Cameron? Has he made the slightest attempt to downplay his class identity?

Well, the answers are obvious, but Boris is to poshness what a pantomime dame is to femininity — an absurd performance put on for the public’s enjoyment. Of course, while Widow Twankey is not actually a woman, Boris Johnson is actually posh. Crucially, though, he very publicly abandoned his own tribe by breaking with Cameron over Brexit and siding with the 52%. 

It also helped that so many prominent Remainers became the new snobs, condescending to Leave voters and insulting them with accusations of ignorance and bigotry. Worse still, they went all out to overturn the referendum result. At each stage of the ensuing battle, it was Boris Johnson who stood in their way, while also taking his share of the flak. In defying the Remain establishment, he stuck by Brexit Britain and so Brexit Britain stuck by him.

But what next? Though hardly irrelevant, Brexit is now just one element in the multiple challenges we face as a nation. As for the Boris persona, that joke’s wearing a little thin — and so, perhaps, is he.

The extraordinary confluence of circumstance and personality that allowed the Tories to prevail is unravelling. So where does that leave them?

With a Cabinet, most of whom were privately educated. With an economic policy that still favours the rentier class. With a looming jobs crisis that will hit the poorest workers hardest. With a skills deficit That is still unsolved; a housing crisis that is still unaddressed; and a culture war that is still unfought. And though the “levelling-up” agenda is promising, it is still as under-resourced as George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

And, so, as the utility of Boris and Brexit fade-away, the Tories still have everything to prove.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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Jeff N
Jeff N
3 years ago

You say “As was laboriously explained, the Cummings family had driven from London
to County Durham so they could self-isolate on a country estate in an
empty cottage away from the main house ” thus the lockdown restrictions
were fully observed.

Yes but as others “laboriously explained” the rules were that specifically no-one was supposed to go ANYWHERE once they had symptoms, so he shouldn’t have left his London home in the first place, and he shouldn’t have returned to his office after having gone home to be with his wife who had symptoms.