Our obsession with class and why it still matters

BY David Waywell   /  7 February 2018

In the very first episode of Fawlty Towers, “A Touch of Class”, Torquay’s favourite hotelier indulges that very British love of judging a person according to their perceived social standing. The arrival of “Lord Melbury” leaves Basil paralysed by obsequiousness. “Sheer class!” he gushes. “Golf, baths, engagements, a couple of […] horses!” Naturally, it all ends in high farce and that even more British endeavour of condemning a person because of their class. “You snobs!” he cries to a departing couple of society toffs. “You stupid, stuck-up, toffee-nosed, half-witted upper-class piles of pus!”

The comedy is as potent now as it was then. Britain is so intricately weaved by class that if you think class no longer exists, it’s probably because you are firmly middle class. The rest of us, in the words of the classic Frost Report sketch, know our place…

America is the same, and now both countries have political systems paralysed by poor leadership, with solutions offered in the form of men whose political identities are couched in the terms of the old class biases of generations past.

The latest Great Hope for the Democrats is Joe Kennedy III, whose stock was one of the few to soar in the past week. He provided the Democrats’ response to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address and has now has become the man to whom many would entrust the future of their party and country. Kennedy III embodies many of the virtues of his political as well as social class. He might not speak with the Boston twang of his grandfather and great-uncle but there’s enough there to quicken the pulses of those Democrats who still dream their dreams of Camelot. His square jaw and kiss curl are as much symbols of a greater past as they are part of his individual identity.

Here in the UK, meanwhile, we have another man lauded because of what he represents as much as who he is. Something of a latter-day Lord Melbury, Jacob Rees-Mogg is seen by many in the Tory grassroots as the heir apparent. Below-the-line comments at Conservative Home or The Spectator would have you believe that Mogg is the first and only Tory to offer a properly authentic conservatism. It’s easy to see why. He is unapologetically arch and archaic in his manner. He extols old virtues, speaks a form of English often mangled by formality, and quotes poets at the drop of his quite real top hat. He is, in all things, an ideal of Englishness that appeals to more romantic Tory hearts.

He is, however, also a symbol of an England that is now more figment than it is fact. Indeed, he and Kennedy might differ in nearly every respect but both offer alternative ways forward for their parties that are rooted in the past and in powerful cultural identities that still have the ability to stir the emotions. Their defenders would argue, of course, that it is unfair to judge either man on his background. None of us can escape our genetics. Rationally and morally, it makes no sense to argue that any person supremely gifted in politics shouldn’t aspire to the highest office.

Yet politics is also about pragmatics and it is simply impossible to separate the individual from the idealisations that generate interest in them. In America, Kennedyism has entered the cultural vocabulary, from Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons to the president in Independence Day (and nearly every other movie). It is synonymous with both charismatic leadership and the moral failings of a privileged elite. Mogg too enjoys the glow afforded to him by his class, which in his case he has managed to fashion into a strange quasi-Wodehousian manner. Both men have no doubt found these qualities worked in their favour in the early stages of their careers but, more crucially, present challenges that would need to be overcome.

In the case of Mogg, his weaknesses are quite evident. Beyond his base in the Tory grassroots, Mogg could well be the most toxic candidate ever to be considered as a potential leader of the Conservative Party. YouGov statistics that track positivity give him a net score of -34 (Boris is on -25), with the overwhelming number of people (49%) saying that they “Really don’t like” him, which is really 59% if you also include the ones that simply “don’t like” him. Chief reasons cited for his unpopularity are that he is “out of touch”, “pompous”, “posh” and “privileged”. So much for the class-blind society.

Anecdotally, this also feels about correct. In Liverpool last week, I found myself talking politics with a taxi driver when I offered the possibility that Mogg might win the Tory leadership. Lit match met dry tinder. The driver started to bounce in his seat, his hands hammering on the wheel, as his face turned bright red with laughter. “Oh, that would make my year!” he cried and continued on the same theme for the next five minutes as he explained why Mogg would be great for Labour. As if to underline his conviction, he even rounded down the fare when we finally reached our destination. The last words I heard him say were “Jacob Rees-Mogg! Bring it on!” as he slipped back into the Lime Street traffic.

Admittedly, taxi drivers in Liverpool are not the best measure of the health of the Conservative Party but it does speak about the heightened emotional response that Mogg’s name tends to generate outside the Conservative base. The amusement of taxi drivers aside, he generates a real hostility that Tories would be foolish to ignore. (Though, the fact that Liverpool taxi drivers hate him with such vehemence will, of course, make Mogg even more attractive to some who delight in this odd twisted dynamic.) Anna Soubry spoke for many when she said on Newsnight that “If it comes to it, I am not going to stay in a party which has been taken over by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. They are not proper Conservatives.”

Joe Kennedy III might have none of Mogg’s presentational flaws but he does face some of that same challenges. Both use class in overt ways that they both would probably try to deny. They appeal to people who prefer political idealisations rather than practical realities. Try mentioning on Twitter that Joe Kennedy might not be the answer to the Democrat’s problem and you will be greeted (as I recently discovered) with real vitriol from those on the Left who are blinded by his youth, looks, and, admittedly, talent. One even insisted to me that “Senator Kennedy” had been doing a great job. Kennedy is actually a Congressman and has only held his seat since 2013.

The mistake is non-trivial. It speaks of the blind love that Kennedy (and, in turn, Mogg) excite among their congregations. There might well be something reassuring about the Kennedy name re-entering politics at a moment when the Trump brand is proving so disruptive and frightening. But can such niche appeal translate into broader support among the electorate? How would Kennedy play in blue-collar America? How, indeed, would Mogg play in outside Southern England?

Popular wisdom has it that Donald Trump cannot win re-election in 2020 and sensible money backs the Democrats’ position. Until they come up with a viable candidate, however, many Democrats will continue to daydream about Kennedy. It’s unlikely Kennedy will run or even allow his name to appear on a ticket. He will surely realise that 2020 is too early for him. His challenge is to work to overcome that hostility towards the Washington elite that Trump rode all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue. As Stephen Colbert put it recently: “Nothing says ‘party of new ideas’ quite like deploying the latest model of Kennedy”.

The same could well be said of Jacob Rees-Mogg. It’s understandable if some Tories believe he’s the antidote to Corbyn. The cut of his suits alone should afford a sizable swing towards the Conservatives. Unfortunately, the man inside that suit is a little too Jeeves and not enough Wooster. Though flawed, wrong, and bad for Labour, Corbyn succeeds on an emotional level. He can deliver a convincing message about compassion. The same cannot (and will never) be said about Mogg, who could read a Shakespearean love sonnet and make it sound like Regulation (EC) No 2160/2003 of the European Parliament on the control of food-borne zoonotic agents.

In a strange way, both Mogg and Kennedy are enabled by their class identity but held back by them. Yet if Kennedy looks nimble enough to overcome the burden of his name and background, it’s hard to say the same about Mogg. Though he denies leadership ambitions, his denials ring hollow when they continue to dominate the headlines. He is a man offering a vision of tomorrow in the form of dreams of yesteryear. Simply nothing about him speaks about today. Class consciousness is something the British are extremely good at denying yet it’s something to which the most astute of our politicians are tuned. If Tories are not already wise to this truth then Jacob Rees-Mogg could well teach them the lesson the hard way.