- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004

As Ferdinand Mount observes at the beginning of “Mind the Gap,” London commentators have a habit of proclaiming that the age of class distinction is no more. Sometimes, you can see their point.

Celebrity is the new currency, old-fashioned deference has withered away, and the truculent Prince Harry is capable of turning in a decent impersonation of a yob.

When the British look across the Atlantic and see two sons of the American aristocracy on the campaign trail, they find themselves concluding— probably rightly— that it is much easier for a rich man to enter the political kingdom of heaven in America than it would be in the UK. After all, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the current Tory leader Michael Howard all come from humble backgrounds. Tony Blair, the product of Scotland’s equivalent of Eton, is positively grand by comparison. Even so, he plays electric guitar in his spare time, and nobody would mistake him for the Duke of Westminster.

Does this mean, then, that the old divisions no longer count? If only that were the case. The undeniable message of “Mind The Gap”— perhaps the most perceptive book on the British way of life since Robert Chesshyre’s study “The Return Of The Native Reporter”— is that the gulf is, in some ways, wider than ever.

If anyone thought class had been banished from the national psyche, this week’s controversy over the response to the murder in Iraq of the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley, showed how little has changed. When the conservative magazine, The Spectator ran an editorial pouring scorn on the mawkishness of the public displays of mourning, the editors scored a few sensible points. It is hard to argue with the view that, in the post-Diana era, the mass media is prone to whip up gales of overheated sentimentality. One of my favourite columnists, Mark Steyn came to a similar conclusion in an article that was so outspoken that his editors at the Daily Telegraph refused to publish it. My own feeling was that Mr. Steyn could have phrased his argument a little more diplomatically. Then again, we all know that he is a straight-shooter from the New Hampshire badlands

The Spectator article spoke in a very different voice; this was the sound of the gentry chatting amongst themselves over sherry, decrying the fecklessness of the lower orders in general and the people in Liverpool in particular. No wonder the magazine’s Old Etonian editor, Boris Johnson (who also happens to be a member of the Tory front bench) found himself abruptly cast as villain of the week. After being denounced by his own party leader, he was obliged to travel up to Liverpool in order to make a public apology. The nation gloated. A shambling extrovert, the 40-year old Johnson is actually something of a media celebrity, the nearest this country has to a Tucker Carlson. The country’s favorite toff, he is a regular on quiz shows; taxi drivers love having him in the back of their cab. But in this case he had transgressed the unwritten law. Much as we like to pretend that classlessness is the order of the day, Mr. Johnson’s gaffe had shown that, underneath the surface, sensitivies are as acute as ever.

“Mind The Gap” (published by Short Books) makes a thoughtful counterpart to Michael Collins’ “The Likes of Us”, the study of South London working class life that I mentioned a couple of months ago. The central difference is that Mr. Mount, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and ex-head of the Number Ten Policy Unit under Mrs. Thatcher, looks at the issue from a loftier elevation. He acknowledges as much in his preface: “I was educated at expensive independent schools, I live in a very nice house in a conservation area, I have a languid upper-class voice and a semi-dormant baronetcy.”

Not exactly the ideal qualifications, then, for roaming the mean streets. But the power of Mr. Mount’s analysis is that he addresses himself to the way that those who occupy the more comfortable rungs of the social ladder have organized, and in some ways, undermined the lives of the people in the lower depths. Haunted by memories of H.G. Wells’ world of Elios and Morlocks, Mr. Mount sees modern Britain as brutally divided between “Uppers” and “Downers”. The former lead restless lives devoted to the often enervating pursuit of self-fulfilment; the latter drift between dysfunctional families, dysfunctional schools and unrewarding jobs. Deference may no longer be the general rule, but Mr. Mount believes that we have also seen the death of respect for the people at the bottom of the pile. And in a meritocracy, the also-rans have fewer means of shoring up their self-respect.

Charles Murray would recognize the landscape — as would anyone, like myself, who grew up on a council estate. What gives Mr. Mount’s analysis particular power is his account of the process by which Britain’s rulers stripped the laboring classes of their independence. Tracing the story through the age of industrialization, he describes how, often with the best of intentions, politicians and reformers undermined the institutions created by the so-called “lower orders”. Nonconformist churches and their social networks were marginalized by the more socially acceptable forces of the Church of England; privately-funded schools and welfare schemes were gradually pushed aside by the State system. Contemptuous of anything that smacked of the petty-bourgeois, the enlightened rulers of society preferred to treat the population as anonymous masses.

As to how to salvage hope from the wreckage, there are echoes of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives in Mr. Mount’s proposals for re-generating a sense of self-sufficiency. Never one to subscribe to the conventional wisdom, he also has the provocative idea of opening up agricultural land to allow the kind of small-scale semi-suburban development which is so common in Ireland or Italy. To many of his fellow-conservatives this makes him the mild-mannered equivalent of Wat Tyler. Little wonder that the left-wing London Review of Books dubbed him a “Tory Marxist”.

When we met over a coffee this week, he still seemed amused by the reaction. “Some people have said the notion is anarchist,” he told me. “But actually it’s, if you like, anarchist-Thatcherite. It’s similar to Tom Paine’s arguments about creating a sturdy republicanism. You make your own little corner. It’s not thought of as selfish, but a way of becoming part of the community.”

Mr. Mount’s ambition is to generate the sense of social cohesion that he sees in America or France. In the United States especially, he points out, most of his ideas about limiting the role of the State and encouraging private initiatives would be regarded as self-evident truths. British attitudes are much more entrenched, nowhere more so than on family policy. Two decades ago Mr. Mount published The Subversive Family, a celebration of the virtues of the nuclear family which became essential reading for American conservatives. Sadly, he believes his arguments ultimately had little effect on the course of events in his own country.

“I would make a distinction between Britain and most of the industrial world,” he explains. “Most other countries have policies which support the family in one way or the other. But in Britain I would have to say, with something of a shamed face, that I hadn’t imagined that the next twenty years would see a stream of legislation and practice that would, partly deliberately and partly unconsciously undermine the family as the norm, the basis of our society. . If you can think of a single thing that’s been done, fiscal, legal or cultural, that has helped to sustain the traditional family, lead me to it. I can’t think of one.”

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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