British elites have been inventive and subtle in preserving their advantages. Their most important achievement has been to tilt Britain towards meritocracy and then restrict access to the means by which citizens can prove their “merit”. Those amongst the rich and connected who fancy themselves as progressives have played into the hands of the most reactionary of their peers. Partly this has been because these so-called progressives are still preoccupied with Marx’s completely outdated idea of what class is. Partly, I think, they know subconsciously that the advent of a real meritocracy would undermine their position of comfort. It’s no accident that the most anti-Semitic people I’ve met in Britain come from the upper classes. They are the ones who have felt most threatened by educationally and economically high-achieving Jews.
One of the cleverest tricks of the British establishment, though, has been to disguise its privilege with the nifty use of vocabulary. I lost count of the number of fellow Oxford undergraduates who cast themselves as “state-educated”, when in fact they had attended fee-charging grammar schools or had government subsidised private education. In the 80s and 90s the word “yuppie” had a completely different meaning in Britain from that used in the States, though in both countries it flagged disapproval. Britain’s yuppies were not “professionals”; the term was most frequently applied to City traders from ordinary backgrounds, the proverbial “barrow-boys made good”. Later the word became further degraded to a tabloid term of abuse for people with more money than the journalist writing about them. Britain’s yuppies were easy to hate: occupationally loud conspicuous consumers. They were an effective distraction, targets the proles could throw rotten fruit at while missing those who lived more secure and quietly enriching lives in the higher branches of the jungle. This idea of inherited security as being the real meaning of class advantage has become almost conventional to those who study social status academically, but has yet to diffuse into everyday discussion. There are still plenty of people who are blind to the real lines in British society.
A few weeks back Hot Wheels Helena was complaining to me about a wussie song that was playing everywhere on the radio: some sensitive singer-songwriter bloke whining about how he’d never get to be with some pretty girl he’d seen. The singer-songwriter is James Blunt and he’s now number one in the UK single charts with the song You’re Beautiful. Various reports are describing Blunt as a “former squaddie“, as though he used to be a working-class grunt with a buzz cut, necking lager in Colchester town centre. Describing someone who used to be an officer in the Household Cavalry (“the Guards”) and who carried the Queen Mother’s coffin as a “former squaddie” is like describing a ex-assistant to the architect Richard Rogers as a “former navvie“.
Once, as I walked into the main entrance of Balliol, a tour guide told the audience following him around Oxford:
So, any visitors to this site thinking of getting a bit bolshie in the comments, just remember who you’re dealing with. I have friends in high places.