Britain’s working class is out of touch…with upper class values
The perception that Britain has too many toffs at the top or that highly educated and experienced judges need the lessons in pop culture they will shortly be getting shows a misunderstanding of the reality of today’s Britain. Unpalatable though privilege may be at a time of increasing social inequality, in the main it is not Bullingdon Club boys who terrorise town centres on a Saturday night, disrupt classrooms or incite others to violence.
It is the tyranny of low brow culture, epitomised by the Simon Cowell media machine, that has led to the idea of fusty judges taking tutorials in trash television in order better to understand those they sentence, when the converse might be preferable – teach the defendants Latin, difficilior lectio potior. Policy makers seem silently to agree. After all, directives aimed at improving the lives of Britain’s masses, the encouragement of the Mediterranean diet, talking cures for mental illness, greater literacy, appreciation of outdoors pursuits, art and classical music, are not an effort to apologise for upper class values but, on the contrary, display a desire to put the general public in touch those values. Though too uncomfortable to be made explicit in the political arena, Britons, it seems, strive to become more, not less, posh.
Margaret Thatcher recognised but misunderstood this, confusing posher with richer. In reality the improvement in the general well being of the populace comes not with only with increased spending power, but with better education and an appreciation of the finer things in life. Michael Gove’s endearing nostalgia for O’Levels (almost certainly to be vetoed by Old Westminster, Nick Clegg), his unfulfilled desire to provide the King James Bible to all school children and his wish to counter the country’s “anti-knowledge culture” and to free people from “the prison house of ignorance” all express a wish that the populace was just a bit, well…posher.
The British wholeheartedly support him. The country is endlessly enamoured of the floppy-haired public school boy now epitomised by real life Old Etonians, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and described on screen to the sighs of women worldwide by posh totty Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, usually at the same time. The breathtakingly profitable Harry Potter books are public school porn, a highly idealised educational nirvana, complete with faux Latin, so unattainable to the ordinary child that it can only be reached via a non-existent station platform.
If, as Nadine Dorries MP suggests, David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, are “two arrogant posh boys” out of touch with reality (and she may well be right), why did we elect Cameron and why do we aspire to his values despite ourselves?
Let’s look at health. The relationship between social class and health is beyond dispute, outlined yet again by a recent US study that found that, despite improvements in cancer detection and treatment, disparities in cancer mortality rates are chiefly related to race and social class. The Marmot Review, “Fair Society, Healthy Lives”, on which the Coalition Government’s public health policy is largely based, shows that people living in the poorest areas die seven years earlier than people living in richer areas and spend 17 more years than their better off peers living with poor health. They have higher rates of mental illness, of harm from alcohol, drugs and smoking, and of childhood emotional and behavioural problems. No surprises, the Coalition policy will suggest improvements to diet, alcohol consumption, physical activity, health at work and what it calls behavioural change.
The NHS Choices website currently recommends swapping sugary cereal for porridge or wholegrains, spoonfuls of sugar for dried fruits and junk food for grilled fish and vegetables, that is, eating the kinds of meals we can imagine Nick Clegg tucking into on a daily basis. From the 1572 Act for the relief of “the impotent poor” and Rowntree’s 1901 comparative study of infant health to the directives of today the aim of policy has been to help, drag or scare the underprivileged out of their bad habits and into posher ones in order to improve their physical and mental health.
Watching Linda Blake’s play “POSH”, loosely based on Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club of which Cameron, Johnson and Osborne were members, one might expect Britain’s prisons to be full of Old Etonians banged up for drugs, soliciting sex and destroying property. But, according to the national prison surveys, the overwhelming proportion of British prison inmates is from the lower levels of the class system with an additional racial element. (Young black males are Britain’s most imprisoned, and arguably least posh, demographic).
The fewer a person’s academic qualifications the more likely they are to engage in criminal activity and end up in prison. Children’s social class is still the most significant factor in determining their exam success in state schools, the Government’s head of teacher training acknowledges. Graham Holley, Chief Executive of the Training and Development Agency has directly linked the performance of schools and the children in them to social class. Michael Gove, like others before him, is keen to redress the balance in education, calling for an unprecedented drive to improve literacy, backed by best-selling authors and senior MPs.
The elitist idea that reading great works of literature is improving has a basis in scientific fact. Research at the University of Liverpool has found that the complexity and rhythm of Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, in a similar way to the “Mozart Effect”, an improvement on the performance of spatio-temporal reasoning and short-term memory brought on by listening to complex classical music. Appreciating art is also good for you. Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College London, has demonstrated that viewing a beautiful work of art triggers the release of dopamine.
Engaging in elitist activities could actually cut crime. Owners of a New Zealand shopping mall found that playing classical music through the loud speakers significantly reduced anti-social behaviour. The Venezuelan musical training system, El Sistema, is credited with saving thousands of children from crime and drug abuse in barrios from Caracas to Stirling in Scotland.
Launching an independent review of music education, Michael Gove declared it “unfair that the joy of musical discovery should be the preserve of those whose parents can afford it.” He was not talking about the X Factor. He was talking about classical music which, according to Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communication, Culture and the Creative Industries, can lead to “improved social skills and educational success, with behaviour, well-being, confidence, team working and concentration skills all proven to improve with good music provision.”
The message of this and previous governments is that being posh is good for your health and the more the underprivileged get in touch with the pursuits and values of the upper classes the better off we will all be. This is exemplified in Britain’s 2012 Holidays at Home Campaign headlined by a picture of Stephen Fry in a purple v-neck sweater standing outside Buckingham Palace with a Corgi.
In a 1975 interview Helmut Schmidt, then Chancellor of West Germany, famously said: “As long as you maintain the damned class-ridden society of yours you will never get out of your mess.” He was right, but the perception has been that the upper classes must get in touch with the working classes, when the momentum is always in the opposite direction.