Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Wrong War


September 18, 2004
The New Class War


A PICTURE sticks in my mind from Wednesday's amazing scenes in Parliament Square.

It is of a beaky-looking, middle-aged fellow, whose check shirt, tweed jacket and tie identify him, if his face did not, as a member of the upper classes. And he has blood all over his forehead - presumably having been hit by a policeman's baton.

A member of the upper classes protesting in Parliament Square and being hit by a policeman: both parts of this statement would have been barely credible even a few years ago.

Such people do not normally have fisticuffs with the police. They are traditionally on the side of law and order. P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster and his pals might vie to capture a policeman's helmet on Boat Race night, but they did not find themselves at loggerheads with the servants of the State.

I have been wondering when was the last time in English history that a man in uniform might have hit a member of the upper - what used to be called the ruling - classes. Not, I think, since the English Civil War, when some rude Roundhead would have cheerfully smashed his halberd over the refined pate of a Cavalier landowner. Not for over 350 years. A shiver ran down my back when, on Thursday morning, this newspaper described the previous day's events as the English Civil War.

The man in a check shirt is a symbol of what many Labour backbenchers loathe. He is privileged, probably well-off and privately educated. He also hunts foxes. Let us pay those backbenchers the compliment of saying they do care a bit about the fox.

But their focus is the man in the check shirt who hunts the fox.

They want to hurt him. Do we seriously believe they would have voted to ban hunting if it were an exclusively workingclass pastime?

Earlier this week, the journalist and writer George Monbiot admitted that the Bill to ban hunting has little to do with animal rights, and a lot to do with rolling back what he called the forces of feudalism. This is the authentically nasty voice of the old, vengeful Left.

Only a little less nastily, Leftish commentators and Labour politicians have complained about the invasion of the Commons chamber by five protesters as though a constitutional outrage has been committed. The Guardian newspaper in its editorial evoked images of the Luftwaffe. Is the Left's anger conditioned by the fact that at least some of the invaders might be described as toffs?

Of course the invasion was indefensible, but I don't recall one tenth of the huffing and puffing in the same quarters when three lesbians protesting about Clause 28 abseiled into the House of Lords chamber in 1988.

But what is truly disturbing is that the Left's class-driven analysis of what happened on Wednesday is tragically and fatally wrong. They are fighting their enemies of 50 or 100 years ago. The demonstration in Parliament Square was not dominated by toffs. There were some country gentlemen and even the odd marquess. But there were many more people who would describe themselves as middle, or even as working, class. Ordinary farmers, steel erectors, hunt workers, farm labourers, garage mechanics, rat catchers, you name it.

People of all classes and differing backgrounds united around a common cause: hunting.

In fact, it is difficult to think of any cause which has brought together so many people from different sections of society since we faced a common enemy in World War II. I suspect that some of the demonstrators may not hunt at all.

Something even more fundamental - and much more dangerous to Tony Blair - animated them: an idea of their cherished liberty as freeborn Englishmen being threatened by busybody politicians.

This is the scale of Mr Blair's idiocy. He personally does not hate the beaky man in the check shirt, although his wife, Cherie, may do so. The Prime Minister is not a class warrior.

Maybe he associates fox hunting with the 'forces of conservatism' which he famously promised to extirpate, but if he had felt very passionately on this score he would not have waited more than seven years to introduce this Bill.

He does not appear to have strong feelings about fox hunting one way or the other. On Wednesday, he did not even bother to vote, and his spokesman has since claimed that the Prime Minister would have preferred a less draconian Bill.

What? So why did he allow this one to be introduced? He has acted in the most cynical manner conceivable. There is no other plausible motive for this legislation than a desire on Mr Blair's part to appease Labour's class-obsessed, antihunting backbenchers who have grown increasingly critical of him, particularly because of the Iraq war. With an election looming, he wanted to reinvigorate his troops, and he hoped that a Bill outlawing hunting would do the trick. Now that he sees the rumpus he has caused, he has the effrontery to claim he did not really want this Bill at all.

His monumental miscalculation has been to believe that the measure would inconvenience a small class which is no longer greatly respected in much of the country, and which is far less powerful than it used to be. But this little exercise in social engineering has spectacularly backfired, as it should have been obvious to him that it would.

The protesters were not defending the rights of the upper classes or of Mr Monbiot's feudal barons. They were defending their right to live their own lives as they wish without metropolitan lawmakers and bureaucrats interfering.

Hunting is the cause, but it is not the only one. Other grievances coalesce around the central complaint: creeping taxes; oppressive red tape; endless politically correct diktats on how people should lead their lives; New Labour's neglect of the countryside, and its almost wilful failure to understand the concerns of its inhabitants; and the Government's incompetent handling of the foot and mouth crisis.

On Wednesday some deep, explosive trigger was touched.

The generally well-behaved and law-abiding protesters who had made their way to Parliament Square let out a cry of pain which in some instances boiled over into violence. The police sometimes overreacted, and in a few cases seemed to have started the fighting.

Whether by design or incompetence, Mr Blair has succeeded in uniting a formidable coalition of diverse interests and classes.

Comparisons have rightly been made between these people and the opponents of the poll tax, whose protests helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher.

Obviously there are similarities.

But those who demonstrated against the poll tax were not so broadly based in a social sense.

Nor did they believe, as most of those in Parliament Square did, that their very way of life was threatened. People who think that are bound to fight.

The Prime Minister is embarked on nothing less than the restructuring of Britain. A new class order is being created.

The traditional upper classes were first marginalised by the abolition of the right of nearly all hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. Now they find themselves potential adversaries of the State which they have traditionally supported.

Far from having the classless society that Mr Blair promised us, we have new and potentially dangerous divisions opening up.

The rift is between the countryside party - that diverse group of people we saw in Parliament Square, some of whom live in towns - and the new metropolitan elite, represented by Tony Blair and New Labour, which does not govern in the interests of the whole country.

This new class has been some time in the making. It is bossy, interfering and ignorant of the currents of British history. It lays down its own laws, and often governs via quangos. It is forever setting targets - at schools, in the police, in the NHS - which it hardly ever meets. It loves paperwork and control. It likes giving the people what it thinks best for them rather than what they want - for example, more grammar schools.

The metropolitan elite is also authoritarian, and identifies with an ever more powerful State.

Dozens of new restrictions have been dreamt up by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, of which the proposed identity card is potentially the most coercive.

If Mr Blunkett had his way, most of us would end up by being tagged, or watched by hovering police helicopters. The only compensation is that most of this 'Big Brother' surveillance does not work very well. The metropolitan elite is not notably competent, thank God.

The BBC helpfully defends the interests of our new governing class. True, there was a brief fallout when Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's erstwhile director of communications, presumed too far on the Corporation's compliance, and tried to get it to do things which even it would not agree to. But the row over the BBC's coverage of Iraq was settled by the Hutton report, and the BBC has generally reverted to its former obeisance towards New Labour.

Indeed, its coverage of the demonstrations in Parliament Square was obligingly considerate. Whereas Sky News and ITN showed many pictures which seemed to convict the police of being too free with their batons, BBC television was more circumspect in its coverage, preferring to pay much more attention to the invasion of the Chamber than the bloody scenes in Parliament Square.

The new metropolitan elite has its fingers in almost every pie.

There are one or two institutions which have enough self-respect, as well as pride in their own traditions, not to be suborned. I am afraid I would not include the Church of England or the universities in this category. The Armed Forces do remain comparatively independent, though even they are being hacked around as, uniquely in an ever-expanding public sector, they are forced to endure cutbacks.

Unsurprisingly, the metropolitan class knows very little about the countryside, the final redoubt. Of course, it has been happy to see the withering of the old upper class which it aims to supplant. It never imagined that the toffs could find common cause with wider interests in the countryside, and that it would face an alliance of traditional classes whose shared purpose is to defend their way of life.

These are the new fault lines in our society, and no one should doubt that they are potentially far more dangerous than the old class differences. When respectable, law-abiding citizens are hit over the head by batonwielding policemen in Parliament Square, surely we can all see that something has gone dreadfully wrong.

The Prime Minister promised to rebrand Britain. Now, with his casual and ill-thought-out attempt to outlaw hunting, he threatens to give us his new class order. I am afraid there is going to be bitter dissension and worse fighting ahead, which is why I trembled at the invocation of the English Civil War.

Like a moody and restless child, Mr Blair has taken the settled jigsaw of English life and thrown the pieces into the air. God alone knows where, and how, they will land.


Christopher said...

Re: The Wrong War 9/04

Very interesting article. I almost suspected it wasn't you who wrote it. For one, it sounds like it's written from the POV of someone in England (both in word choice "us", knowledge, and interest) and two, some of the choice criticisms seem more... laissez-faire, rightist, libertarian than I'd expect.

Attacks against the metropolitan elite, etc.

Digging around your old posts (terrier not included) is proving interesting.

PBurns said...

Uhhh.. Chris, you did read the top right?

September 18, 2004
The New Class War

Hard to make it more clear than that!


Christopher said...


My powers of deduction are obviously more keen than my eyesight! Or perhaps I have visual anomia.

I was imagining all these scenarios of how you must have fit in living in England and why you'd know about obscure attacks on parliament by rappelling lesbians twenty years ago. Given your vibrant history, it was at least possible, if not plausible.

I don't know how I missed the byline. I even remember looking for one after I came across some words that I didn't know and the obvious confusion over authorship.

The question is, do I make the appointment with an optometrist or a psychiatrist?