“Plebgate” and the new snobbery

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.

9 thoughts on ““Plebgate” and the new snobbery

  1. I’d argue that the one of the best exemplars of “one-nation conservatism” in U.S. politics today is…Barack Obama. (Don’t tell David Brooks.)

  2. Except in some exceptional – heroic – cases, Radicals and Radical Conservatives have both ditched the populist movements; those of a Hard-Right social ethos. They chose the soft option. Mistake.

      1. Yes. An Alliance between the Radicals and Radical Conservatives. Firstly, it includes the Individualists, Anarchists, Classical Liberals and Libertarians; these are the Hard-liners, the left-wing of the alliance. Secondly, Anti-war traditionalist conservative Right-wingers, who don’t subscribe to a systematic ideology but a sort of spiritual Nationalism steeped in Western cultural roots: adherence to some confession of faith and preoccupied by affections for country and community strength. This alliance is the Hard-Right. Conservatives make up the movement’s backbone.
        Radicals who ditched us for a Progressive Warfare-state or Conservative radicals who yielded to the same cause too, or who retreated into an escapist rapture; they reject the Hard-Right for softer alternatives of comfort.

  3. I don’t understand why not wanting the government to go and do something means that you’re against that thing. For example, I can be all for charity without being for confiscatory tax policies. Are you saying that the only way to support the poor is by pulling out guns and taking from productive people by force?

    1. I agree wholeheartedly that in principle it is possible to be completely in favour of helping the poor while completely against that involving the government.

      In practice, though, that runs into two difficulties. First, an awful lot of the rhetoric that usually surrounds the removal of state support from the poor and vulnerable ends up delegitimising and stigmatising them as “scroungers”, “bogus claimants”, “workshy layabouts”, “moochers”, “looters” and so on. This hostile language is scarcely calculated to inspire extra-governmental compassion on a scale to replace the former state provision.

      Second, the overwhelming evidence of history (and, indeed, the best inference to draw from running the numbers comparing social security support with charitable giving) is that individual compassion will not be sufficient to provide for the poor and needy, especially in a modern, urban, capitalist society. So to be in favour of removing all state support in favour of individual charity is objectively to be in favour of leaving millions of people in penury and destitution – even if that is far from being your own personal wish.

      That is no doubt why the Bible doesn’t leave the relief of poverty to individual compassion, but instead commands it as a duty of kings (see, for example, Proverbs 31:8,9). In a democracy, that is a responsibility that falls to us as we participate in civil and political society.

      1. Welfare can be done by either the society or the State. One does it. One appropriates it too much.

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