In the mid 2000s, I moved from Glasgow to London to join The Sunday Telegraph. I was daunted, and not only because I was about to enter the hallowed halls of Fleet Street.
I would be running the comment section of the High Tory bible, which was filled with illustrious names. I’d been told the weekly leader conference, which decided the paper’s editorial positions on the issues of the day, was attended by Charles (now Lord) Powell, who had been Margaret Thatcher’s chief adviser, and the historian Andrew Roberts. Both were posh, globally renowned, Oxbridge brainiacs. Powell even pronounced his surname “Pole”.
And now, um, me – a provincial state-school kid who had failed his journalism HND (record shops, girlfriend) and who had subsequently panicked his way up the ranks in Scottish newspapers. The gap, in my mind, was one not just of ability and experience, but of social class. It was like Sid Vicious joining the London Philharmonic.
There was only one thing for it – I bought a duffel coat. If I were to move into a world of Conservative grandees, of aristocratic scions and society gossip, of Boris Johnson and Auberon Waugh and Bill Deedes, then there was just enough of the chippy Scot in me to make a futile statement. I was a Hyndland indie kid on a crazy adventure, and I wouldn’t forget it amid the pinstripes.
The Telegraph, it turned out, was largely staffed by ordinary Joes. But there were plenty of Old Etonians and Oxford PPE-ers, too.
There were cut-glass accents and gentlemen’s clubs and country weekends. There was breathtaking social and intellectual self-confidence, some of it even justified.
The English gentry get nervous around gruff, sweary Scots, so I adopted a persona that was part Bill Shankly, part Taggart. I cajoled and argued and took the mickey. By the time I left, a decade later, I had found my place and, I think, acquitted myself well enough.
But I never quite got used to, or bridged, the class divide. I was never going to, of course. Our work experience kids had names like Peregrine and Camilla, and were often louchely arrogant.
My better-off colleagues glided through life. The wealthy upper classes live and work differently – a job is a way to pass the time or to fulfil their inevitable destiny, not a lifeline between survival and catastrophe. There is often an easiness, a lightness, to them.
Sasha Swire’s fatally indiscreet diaries of life in David Cameron’s clique, published this month, bring much of it back. “Diary of an MP’s Wife” is a view from the inner circle of the gilded few, displaying all the snobbishness and entitlement that is so intolerable to the rest of us.
For people like the Swires, politics is a game in which the fate of the little people is rarely the first priority. Rather, it’s about social standing and getting your due.
Sir Hugo Swire, Sasha’s husband, is an Old Etonian and former Army officer. Under his pal Cameron, he held middle-ranking jobs at the Northern Ireland Office and the Foreign Office, but climbed no higher, much to the couple’s chagrin.
Sasha at least has some self-awareness. Looking round the Camerons’ Christmas party in 2011, she observed: “We all holiday together, stay in each other’s grace-and-favour homes, our children play together… There are old rows, forgiven betrayals and historic rivalries. This is a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on. It’s enough to repulse the ordinary man, already angered by the continuing hold of the British class system.”
After Brexit forces him from Downing Street, notes Sasha, “Dave is making loads of money, and has no interest in taking on a big public job like Nato. Lots more time to chillax, put on weight and play the golf courses of the southern states of America… As for all the dosh, he says every time he looks for a loophole to stash it away, he realises that George and he closed it, and laughs.” It’s hard to imagine Gordon Brown cracking that gag.
Since the end of the last Labour government Britain has regressed weirdly in terms of who holds power. The upper classes have reasserted their right-to-rule. Cameron and Boris Johnson, especially, have governed with a coterie of the privileged. Both men have their talents but, at their worst, have shown the worst aspects of their class – condescension, cockiness and, unfortunately for the rest of us, catastrophically bad judgment cocooned by impermeable self-belief.
This is a dangerous game. Around them a revolution is taking place. The statues of the historical British Establishment and its empire are falling. Campaigns for minority rights have descended into brutal and saddening culture wars. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed both the possibilities but also the ineptitude of government. The Union wobbles. The class problem plays an integral part.
We have a right to expect merit, integrity and empathy from our rulers. Self-interest and blithe indifference to consequences cannot be squared away by charm and rhetorical optimism. Frankly, it all makes me want to don my duffel coat and head for the barricades.