JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 7.8.10
IT WAS THREE MONTHS AGO today that Britain woke up from its post-general-election hangover, to find the political landscape shfting in ways more fundamental than anyone had expected; and although David Cameron’s premiership lost its first few fragments of shine this week, in the difficult territory of Afghanistan and Iran, it has to be acknowledged that he has made an unusually gilded and flawless transition into power.
It’s important not to overstate the significance of David Cameron’s good press, of course; the Westminster media pack has a repellent habit of rolling over and purring for several months – and sometimes for two or three years – whenever a new government takes on the seductive trappings of power.
Yet there’s something about the welcome David Cameron has received this summer that is both distinctive, and chilling; and it is the brazen, unrepentant snobbery of some of the commentary on his performance to date. First, in those tense days after the election, there was the visible sense of ease between many senior journalists and the new government, very similar to the visible harmony between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Then there was the drip-drip of positive comparison with the manners and demeanour of Gordon Brown, who is a moody character, but hardly so ill brought up, as a son of the manse, that – as has been alleged in some places – he never writes a thankyou letter.
Then there came an astonishing Guardian column from sometime socialist Martin Kettle, describing Cameron as “a man of grace, who has been good for Britain”, and repeating some of the most negative gossip about Brown; and a series of BBC political shows – most notably last Saturday’s Week In Westminster -commenting favourably on Cameron’s obvious suitability for the role of Premier, given his social and educational background. “We used to joke before the election about Cameron being “born to rule””, one journalist quoted a Whitehall mandarin as saying, last week. “But now, we can see that it’s true.”
So what on earth are we to make of this astonishing 21st century outbreak of a kind of class deference, and a set of class assumptions, that would have been regarded as slightly old-fashioned back in the 1880’s? Simply, I suppose, that political and economic change never comes alone, but always reflects, and in turn reinforces, much deeper changes in our thinking about what a human being is, and what we can become. In the postwar years, there was a broad presumption – born of the long march of Enlightenment thinking, and the bitter experience of Depression and war – that by the exertion of common sense, and the appliance of science and democracy, societies could be made to move in an ever more progressive direction, becoming more equal, more open, more compassionate, and more committed to the security and fulfilment of every citizen.
After the radical social revolution of the 1960’s, though, and the oil shock of the mid-1970’s, that belief began to go into reverse, as people began to see the progressive project as having “gone too far”, or as simply too expensive. The election of Margaret Thatcher was both a symptom and a cause of that change; so was the hugely influential publication, in 1976, of Richard Dawkins’s zeitgeist book The Selfish Gene, which rapidly became the bar-room bible of reactionary types who wanted to portray human capacities as primarily inherited, resistant to social influences, overwhelmingly competitive, and strongly gender-specific.
And both of these changes helped legitimise the vast and growing economic inequality that so damages the life-chances of most children born in this country today; the growth, that is, of a dominant class of high earners, with household incomes in six figures or more, who consistently portray their own experience as “middle class” and normal, when in fact – like 19th century landowners – they constitute a tiny aristocracy of wealth, representing less than 1% of the population.
It should therefore be pretty self-evident, to any thinking citizen, that the overwhelming dominance of that small class – in business, government, the national media, and the new coalition cabinet – is an affront to any true concept of democracy, and unsustainable in terms of its ability to represent the real interests of ordinary British people. For the moment, the six-figure elite exert a vice-like grip on our self-image; the secret of their success in shaping political life, over several decades, lies in their ability to bamboozle people struggling by on ordinary salaries of 25,000 or 30,000 a year into believing that they are living in the same world as the Camerons or the Blairs, and that it is right for them to be represented by people who embody their highest material aspirations.
In truth, though, it is not right. As we are rapidly learning, it is dangerous to every essential public service and benefit on which ordinary earners depend, as taxpayers and citizens; but which those protected by a giant bank-balance do not need, and are willing to sacrifice in the interests of economic theory, or a vague and mistaken belief that there is no reason to prefer professionally staffed public services, delivered of right, to the charitable giving of Victorian-style philanthropy. Of course, the philanthropy of the rich is better than their meanness, as Warren Buffett and his friends so amply demonstrated this week.
It has nothing to do, though, with democracy, or human dignity, or any of those fundamental values of liberty, equality and fraternity which inspired the long modernising march of our society, from the 18th century to the 20th. And if we do not wake from our post-modern dream, get out from in front of the television, and start fighting again to preserve and develop those rights, they will disappear from our world; and we will be left tugging the forelock again, and thanking those well-mannered gentlemen very kindly for their decency in chucking the odd sovereign into our begging-bowl, or for paying us poverty wages, as we work until we drop.