The UK has always been class-ridden: or England has, at any rate. In a sense, we’re relaxed about the fact. We can joke about “a touch of class”, which happens to be the title of that painful early episode of Fawlty Towers where the snobbish Basil, at his sycophantic best, is taken in by a conman posing as Lord Melbury.
Nowadays, I guess, class gets confused with wealth. Fiction of a certain period and style is fixated on faded gentry languishing in damp draughty houses with position and title, but no money. Nowadays, perhaps, those figures are lost in the past: the current nobs have money, whether “new”, or old and inherited.
Whether nouveau or ancien, the wealthy all to often do themselves no favours. Last Sunday’s Times featured a story about two sets of neighbours in Highgate, North London, who have fallen out and gone to court about it.
I don’t need to repeat the names here. One couple, seeking to enhance the garden of their £5m (yes!) home, were horrified by the £150,000 quote from a well-established firm of landscape gardeners. Their neighbour, an architect, reckoned she could do it more cheaply for them, giving them free advice and employing Polish labourers.
When the bill passed some £300K, the couple had had enough, called in the firm who had originally quoted, and sued her for the difference.
She is accused not just of doing a shocking job, but of offering her services to this “prestigious” project in a bid to boost her newly-established solo practice, thus incurring a “duty of care” even though she did not charge. She is now appealing.
Blimey! Neither side emerges with credit from this sorry tale: and those of us who live more modest lives might merely sniff disapprovingly and judge that the two parties deserve one another. At least they’ll pay (quite a lot) to waste the courts’ time.
Such stories serve to entrench popular views of the rich and their selfish foibles, and right now that might not be a healthy thing in our society.
An unconnected story ran in yesterday’s Evening Standard (and elsewhere). Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is about to offer a new franchise in the hope of finding a halfway competent operator to take over the hapless Southern Rail network. And about time.
One of the wheezes his advisors have come up with is to get rid of First Class, thereby freeing up additional coaches and seats. (Another is to remove seats to create Metro/Tube-style carriages, so that more people can be crammed on: there was no comment on how hard-pressed season-ticket-holding commuters would react to paying the same money with no hope at all of sitting down).
When you’re in a mess, as Southern Rail is, I guess some lateral thinking is required. But do I sense a political undercurrent in this suggestion?
Government is currently focused almost obsessively on JAMS (the Just About Managing), about whom I’ve written before. Actually, it’s aiming very precisely at those poorer areas that voted so emphatically for Brexit, in defiance of their traditional political leadership in the Labour party (think Sunderland, the North-East more generally, the West Midlands). Many of those households targeted aren’t even just about managing: but they’re all on or below the average level of income.
They are now seen as swing voters: people who in the past would have voted Labour without a second thought. Now, with the Opposition in disarray and no other real choices available (UKIP being no real choice for Westminster), the Tories have them in their sights.
So, you wealthy few who can afford First Class tickets, you’re becoming an endangered species. Government no longer has any interest in hanging on to your votes.
I have no brief for you. This March I feel as if I’ve lived on the train to London, since it’s a hectic month of meetings for me: but I’m conscious of who pays my expenses, and travel Standard unless (thanks to my Senior Railcard), there’s little or no difference in ticket price bought well in advance.
But I have some sympathy, because I’m a senior professional whom once the Tories would have wooed but now find, well, a bit dirty. Like the independent school I run.
They’re funny old times. I don’t think there was ever an age in which rich people squabbling over a garden project would have faced anything but ridicule. But now? They should anticipate downright hostility. There’s too much of the moat and duck-house about it.
Class was always a fraught thing, and for too long ordinary Brits were impressed and cowed by it. But nowadays to sport a “touch of class”, or even an impression of wealth, is to be touched not by greatness but by the sense of a nasty smell.
If I were you, I’d ditch the tweeds, buy the standard class ticket and pack into the overcrowded carriage with your fellow commuters. Britain is not a very tolerant, broadminded or forgiving place right now.