October 25, 2022

When Rishi Sunak, Britain’s richest MP, moves into No. 10, it will be a week since the UK’s biggest food bank announced it is running out of supplies. This contrast between wealth and poverty has not been so vivid for decades. While Sunak and his wife have a combined fortune worth £730 million (twice that of King Charles III and the Queen Consort), Liz Wright, a 65-year-old cleaner from North Shields, recently told ITV News that she often can’t afford the £4 bus fare to get to work; she barely ever switches on her oven and said it was “a luxury to have a piece of toast”. Last Thursday, meanwhile, Sunderland pensioner Betty Watson told BBC News that butter was “a luxury now for most people”.

Whenever there is talk of poverty and “luxury”, it’s hard not to think of that old comedy sketch, with a bunch of self-satisfied, middle-aged men in white dinner jackets, puffing cigars and bloviating about their inter-war childhoods. As the “Four Yorkshiremen” strain to trump each other’s sob stories, they become ever more ludicrous. “We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank,” insists one:

“Every morning we’d have to get up at six, clean out t’rolled-up newspaper, eat a crust of stale bread, then we’d have to work 14 hours at t’mill, day in day out, for sixpence a week. Aye, an’ then when we’d come home, Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt.”

“Luxury!”, barks his fellow plutocrat. “We used to get up at three…”

The sketch first appeared on 24 October 1967, on At Last the 1948 Show, an ITV series written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman. It drew not on the hackneyed old gaggery of the music halls, but the sophisticated wit of the Cambridge Footlights. The series is not much remembered, but the Four Yorkshiremen was revived by Monty Python in the Seventies. And it stuck, because it struck a chord.

Its main creator was Marty Feldman, who did not have as well-heeled an upbringing as some of his 1948 colleagues. Feldman was born in 1934, to a poor Jewish family in the East End of London. His biographer Robert Ross writes that Feldman’s father, Myer, was initially a “pushcart peddler” — but bettered himself and his family by turning round a dressmaking business, moving to North Finchley, and forking out for a Bentley.

Marty hated all this and rebelled, scarpering to Soho at 15 and sleeping in Waterloo Station. So the Four Yorkshiremen sketch seems, at least partly, to be Feldman taking the piss out of his dad. Once he became a successful comedian, there is some evidence that Marty, too, was given to exaggerate the poverty of his childhood — so perhaps he was also taking the piss out of himself. Nevertheless, the sketch is driven by a very Sixties exasperation with an older generation who just won’t stop maundering on about the hard times they once suffered, and how they had dragged themselves up by their bootstraps. Hence the punchline: “And you try and tell that to the young people of today, and will they believe you? No!”

All this had a much wider political resonance. Britain’s whole post-war order was built on the promise that there was to be no going back to the mass unemployment of the Thirties. In 1967, the Prime Minister was a real-life Yorkshireman, who really had grown up in the Thirties with an out-of-work father. Harold Wilson had risen via Oxford University, but at one point, money had been so tight that he was going to have to start work in his uncle’s umbrella factory instead.

Many post-war public figures had it a lot worse. Joe Gormley, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, was one of the most powerful men in Seventies Britain. In his 1982 memoir, Battered Cherub, he recounts how, growing up in dirt poverty near Wigan, “underwear was unheard of, and would have been regarded as the height of luxury”. His headmaster thought young Joe would walk the entrance exam to grammar school, but after hearing his mother panicking about the cost of the uniform, he threw his schoolbooks in a stream and took a job down the pit at 14. He saw his first fatal injury there two years later.

But there is always a risk that such tales slip into weepy, sepia sentimentality. As a callow young cabinet minister in 1948, Wilson reportedly told an audience: “The school I went to in the North was a school where more than half the children in my class never had boots and shoes on their feet.” The press didn’t buy it, and his “barefoot speech” made Wilson a laughing-stock. Even 20 years later, when the Four Yorkshiremen first aired, people were still mocking him about it. “The only reason Harold Wilson has ever been barefoot,” suggested one Conservative MP, “is because he was too big for his boots.”

By the end of the Sixties, a new generation was coming of age who harboured no such fearful memories, embellished or otherwise, and was tired of hearing them. New political nightmares were competing for attention: strikes and the cost of living. Yet still the memory of mass unemployment trumped everything. By September 1974, the Conservative frontbencher Sir Keith Joseph declared that it was time to call out the Left for incessantly “play-acting the Thirties”. The pressing nightmare now was not dole queues, but inflation. He talked about the necessity of fighting ideas with ideas, noting the way dictators always banned jokes. But now he had a joke on his side. That summer, Monty Python’s album Live at Drury Lane featured a new rendition of the Four Yorkshiremen. Marty Feldman was no monetarist, but that derisive cry of “Luxury!” was now readily to hand, sounding a sarcastic raspberry against the ghosts of the Thirties. 

By the end of the Seventies, the generational shift signalled by the Four Yorkshiremen had spread into the Labour cabinet. Roy Hattersley, born in 1932, sensed that “the fears of the Thirties had very generally passed”. Even Home Secretary Merlyn Rees, born in 1920, told the Cabinet: “I was brought up in a poor home where unemployment was bad, but it is different now.” A rise in joblessness was no longer taboo.

In September 1980, the Pythons performed the Four Yorkshiremen to an enormous audience in Hollywood. Two weeks later, the new prime minister, Keith Joseph’s ally Margaret Thatcher, famously declared that she was “not for turning” in her battle with inflation, regardless of the cost in jobs. By the time Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl reached US cinemas in June 1982, UK unemployment had passed three million. It was the first time this had happened since the Thirties; such long-gone miseries had lost their political power.

Since then, the sketch has been revived again and again. And why not? There is still plenty of hypocrisy and performative garment-rending for it to puncture, from politicians hitching a free ride on the suffering of their grandparents to celebrities monetising their miseries. And yet. Scepticism can harden into cynicism, to the point where stories of real, unfunny poverty can be wafted away as exaggerated or exceptional, with a sarcastic cry of “Luxury!”

The Conservative MP David Davis grew up poor in Battersea and York. His grandfather, a disabled, blacklisted communist from North Shields, raised him in a single-storey prefab: a “steel, plywood and asbestos box”. As a child in the Fifties, his weekly treat was a slice of malt loaf slathered in Stork margarine. In his memoir-in-progress, he notes that it’s impossible to write about stuff like this without the Four Yorkshiremen sketch springing instantly to mind.

Nevertheless, for Davis, as for some MPs across politics, the memory of poverty has been foundational. Last September, in a debate on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits, Labour’s Bridget Phillipson told the Commons that she knew the difference a bit of extra money can make. As a child on Tyneside in the Eighties, her single mum couldn’t afford to buy her a winter coat. “I was kept warm,” she said, “by the generosity of a neighbour, who himself did not have much, who saw me and put some money through our door in an envelope marked ‘For Bridget’s coat’.” As we head into the hardest winter many of us have ever faced, it may be useful to hear politicians talk like this now and then, without Marty Feldman’s old pop at his dad getting in the way.

Will Sunak’s new government achieve this? The Four Yorkshiremen is a relic of a time when reminiscences about past privations had become tedious, because they had dominated politics for a generation. A resistance to over-worrying about poverty has circumscribed our politics ever since. As our new Yorkshire-based Prime Minister takes office, however, that era may be drawing to a close. Witness the collapse of Liz Truss’s political project, and the resistance of Conservative MPs, from Iain Duncan Smith to Sajid Javid, to breaking Boris Johnson’s promise to increase benefits in line with inflation.

Sunak takes office as an alumnus of Goldman Sachs, and an instinctive tax cutter. But he is also the ex-Chancellor who planned to raise National Insurance to repair the social care system, and who championed the furlough scheme. On the one hand, public services are already under terrible strain; on the other, there is intense new pressure for cuts to public spending.

If, as seems almost certain, we are headed for renewed austerity, it will be much harder for any politician to make the case for it than in 2010 — but all the more so for a man as rich as Rishi. For many of those he will need to win over, fearful of the cost of keeping warm, his lifestyle is something from another world: from the £180 temperature-controlled coffee cup to the heated swimming pool (£13,000 a year).

A politician’s economic backstory now matters far more now than it did a few years ago, when we were told politics was all about culture, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was the tribune of the masses. Perhaps Sunak can follow Margaret Thatcher, the wealthy barrister who reinvented herself as the grocer’s daughter. Witness those videos about his youth working in his parents’ pharmacy.

The risk is he ends up looking more like David Cameron — the stockbroker’s Etonian son, protesting that “we’re all in this together”. The Four Yorkshiremen is a warning against overplaying rather mild childhood struggles. But it is also poses another trap, and not only for the new Prime Minister: of refusing to look poverty in the face.