An excellent piece by Philip Blond in today’s FT (£/reg; also on Blond’s blog), reflecting on the fallout from last week’s incident in which the Tory chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, is alleged to have called police officers guarding Downing Street “f–king plebs”.
Blond suggests that the incident “matters and resonates because of what it says about modern Britain”. It’s not simply a matter of class: after all, Boris Johnson, who revels in his privileged status, is probably the most popular politician in the country. Rather, it’s about “old privilege” versus “new privilege”:
Mr Johnson is liked because he is seen to represent an older class position that knew its privileges but understood its duties, too. Mr Mitchell’s alleged remark reverberates as it speaks to new lines of class and forms of privilege; an elite that cares not a damn for those below it and considers itself beyond the normal order that governs society.
The same impression – of a contemptuous elite that rejects any claims upon it from the rest of society – lies behind the anger at Mitt Romney’s comments on the “47 per cent”. But Blond identifies an uncomfortable truth behind both Mitchell’s and Romney’s unguarded remarks:
The trouble is that “47-per-centers” and “plebs” do define the modern order and do capture current reality. […] Conservatives in both countries now represent vested over public interest, big business over small, international over national capital. They typify and defend an economic system that serves the minority rather than the majority.
As a result, “the centre right has almost ceased to do majority politics”. Instead:
It defines national interest in terms of the already powerful and increasingly abandons the middle and lower classes to their fate. They are persuaded by past fictions that what is in the interest of the winners percolates to those below them. In short, conservatives are unknowingly creating an oligarchy, one which will make us all plebs.
As such, Blond’s article makes a good companion piece to David Brooks’s latest op-ed in the New York Times, in which he bemoans the eclipse of “traditional conservatives” by an “economic conservative” ascendency which elevates individualism above all other values. As Brooks puts it:
It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists.
Brooks also makes an intriguing point on how the former tension between economic and social conservatives:
embodied a truth that was put into words by the child psychologist John Bowlby, that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.
To return to Blond, he describes how education has ceased to function as a route to social mobility in both the US and the UK, while income inequality in both countries widens rapidly:
Now conservatives risk appearing indifferent to those left behind. The west used to have a self-sacrificing elite that believed in common values where everyone was important and had a role to play. Now we have a self-serving echelon that believes in nothing except itself and the results are all around us. Talk of plebs disturbs us not because it comes from our past but because it captures our present and increasingly describes our future.
I think Blond romanticises the elites of the past, here: after all, the socialist and social democratic (and indeed “economic conservative”) opposition to those elites didn’t come from nowhere. But I think he has hit the nail on the head in the last sentence: the suspicion that Mitchell is not a throwback, but thoroughly contemporary.