The release by the Leveson inquiry of a series of text messages from former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks to the Prime Minister, David Cameron has elicited predictable excitement amongst the political classes for revealing the small vignettes that expose the undercurrents of their relationship.
I say predictable because I felt exactly the same way too, so it’s not really a criticism but an admission.
But really, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know in broad terms. We already know that Cameron allowed himself to get way too close to the News International set, particularly Brooks. The idea that he might have ridden the horse that the Metropolitan Police gave to Brooks has already given the scandal enough of a symbolic image without the text message from Brooks, with ‘country supper’ and taking Osborne’s fallacious ‘We’re all in this together’ phrase and hanging it merrily around Cameron’s neck like a millstone with regards his closeness to Brooks.
The ‘Yes We Cam!’ sign-off is cringe-inducing but doesn’t really reveal much beyond the fact that she had clearly already decided what the headline of The Sun was going to be days before Cameron even made his speech, which is supposedly what newspapers ‘never’ do.
What I felt the text message revealed more of was Britain’s (or should that be England’s?) unending obsession with class. Much of it is now done in a supposed knowing tone (depending on which class you’re referring to), so we can shield ourselves from accusations of being a class snob, but the obsession remains in one form or another.
Simon Carr’s sketch in the Independent includes a Hyacinth Bouquet headline as he mocks her attempts to ingratiate herself with a semi-upper class man like Cameron with references to having a ‘country supper’.
Personally my supper was always three slices of toast, a bag of Space Raiders, a Penguin biscuit and a pint of milk. A country supper conjures up images of game pie, served with roast potatoes and a glass of some very fine wine. I’m jealous.
Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian says it’s a ‘trifle gauche‘ to refer to Old Etonians, let alone refer to them as ‘OEs’. There’s that irony again. And it’s true that the whole thing exposes so many issues about class, it’s not so much the journalistic class commenting on it than pointing out to people like me (who have no idea about OEs) exactly why it matters.
Of course one of Britain’s national sports is knocking down someone who has the temerity to try rise above their station, whether we do that from the position they start in or are trying to get to, we love knocking someone down and keeping them in their place. So while we get to laugh at Brooks’ ideas above her station, the upper classes also have a chance to laugh at her transparent attempts to be like them.
To a degree we like to sneer or laugh at anyone in a situation different to our own, whether it’s those we consider beneath us or those we consider above us.
In that respect, the text takes on a rather tragic undertone, Brooks comes across as a slightly ham-fisted social climber desperately trying to ingratiate herself with the country club types. It’s no surprise perhaps that Brooks also took a shine to Tony Blair, who states in his autobiography that he always felt the Royal Family viewed him as a bit ‘nouveau riche’ (I think it was the Royal Family he was referring to), which itself brings to mind the anecdote from Alan Clarke’s diaries about Michael Heseltine being criticised by grandee Tories as someone who has to ‘buy his own furniture‘. You can imagine how Brooks would feel insecure around the upper classes.
It’s worth remembering that David Cameron is from a social background so rarefied that when he visited the Getty family as a child he sat in the back of a Concorde and said ‘Good health, sir’ to the chaperone while drinking champagne. He was about nine years old! Not to mention the fact that George Osborne was referred to as ‘Oik’ at university because he was less rich than the other very rich people he was ‘friends’ with (none of this makes them unsuitable for office by the way, their incompetence does that).
We already know everything we need to know about the incredible closeness between Cameron and the News International set (It wasn’t every weekend we met, he said, it was every six weeks), what Brooks’ text reveals is England’s inability to escape notions of class.
Whether it’s laughing with incredulity that very rich people refer to ‘country supper’ or that self-made people desperate to fit in commit social faux pas by referring to Old Etonians as such in writing, we’re still obsessed by class and the appropriate behaviour for people and ensuring that everyone knows their place and fits in properly. Little gets said about the idea that perhaps the self-made person deserves more respect than the inherited millionaire.
While the social mores of the upper classes is clearly good for a bit of journalistic sport, for the working classes you can’t help but notice it’s framed more in terms of fecklessness and the undeserving poor. While we have fun with Brooks’ text, Iain Duncan Smith is responding to news about child poverty figures by promising to redefine child poverty so it takes less account of income, talking purely in terms of worklessness and addiction despite the majority of poor families actually having working parents.
We laugh at the upper classes and sneer at the working classes, while those in between should know their place for fear of being branded a Hyacinth Bucket (That’s pronounced ‘bouquet’, darling!). The upper classes can console themselves by lying in a bath full of £50 notes drinking champagne (Note: this is irony, I do not believe rich people do this, though I probably would if I was rich), but when the working classes feel the force of policies borne of such sneering, what can they do?