The immediate post war era wasn’t great for toffs. The mood of the nation was serious and egalitarian. Churchill came from a wealthy background but turned down Oxford in favour of a commission in the armed forces, Attlee gave up a career as a Barrister to serve as a Major in Infantry, and was decorated in battle.
Posh politicians like Eden and MacMillan were replaced by Wilson, the grammar school swot, and Jim “cloth cap” Callaghan. Britain’s Imperial era of economic and political dominance was over and in its place a new cultural super power emerged mostly driven by working class pop stars, writers and actors. The posh dressed down and pretended to lowly origins.
The loss of empire deprived the under talented but well connected an outlet; in a former era Rees Mogg would have enjoyed a storied career as a spectacularly incompetent colonial administrator in an Empire large enough that we could indulge his indolence and pomposity a long way from home.
Thatcher changed that.
She wasn’t posh herself but she steamrolled the egalitarian post war settlement. She cut taxes for the rich and for the first time it was ok to be a snob again. After her landslide in 1982 Britain changed: Sloane rangers, Rahs, Brideshead Revisited, and Last Night of the Proms were celebrated as displays of toffishness.
So dominant were these posh archetypes that they soon became the stuff of comedy: Harry Enfield’s Tory Boy and Tim: Nice but Dim.
The generation of snobbish posh boys who grew up in the 80s idolised Thatcher – not because of her ideology but because the changes she brought about made being a massive snob acceptable again .
It is that generation of pompous snobs who run Britain right now: Boris, Rees Mogg, Cameron. Brexit has been the final break with the post war settlement, the way for the rich and snobbish to permanently seal their ascendence. All went to top private schools and Oxford, all spent their time at University gravitating round the Oxford Union. The transition from Eton to Oxford to Westminster was seamless.
Although some were on different sides of the Brexit argument none of them were ideological. An ideology is a template for changing the world. They want to keep the world exactly as it is but with themselves and their chums securely at the top.
The majority of posh boys, led by Boris, were opposed to the EU because it was meritocratic and egalitarian and as such represented a threat to their own power and privilege. Ruling the plebs was their prerogative, not to be shared with foreigners.
Thatcher was pro-EU and invented the single market, but despite their love for her the posh boys were opposed both because the idea of competition based on merit was an anathema to them.
But while the real super posh were unideological there were other groups busy formulating their ideological obsessions
And that’s where I come in.
I can’t talk about Oxford as I had a short spell in the Economics Department at Warwick, followed by Mod History at Liverpool, and an MBA.
Warwick then was a hot bed of the Federation of Conservative students who would debate far right ideology and then get so drunk they would wet themselves. Mostly the were laddish libertarians, who wanted to legalise heroin and hardcore pornography. They would collect images from hardcore porn mags and stick them to their beer glasses with condensation in order to “provoke debate” with feminists, the more extreme and degrading the better.
They were uncritical cheerleaders for Renamo, Unita and the Contras, armed far right groups opposing leftist governments in Mozambique, Angola and Nicaragua. At least one of them boasted to Steven Wells in the NME that he had fought with the Contras, but no-one really believed him.
They were the originators of the “Hang Nelson Mandela” t-shirts, which despite many later denials were such a popular accessory that they were regularly parodied – a left wing group I was involved in made “Hang Norman Willis” flyers to send them up. OK, student humour wasn’t that funny.
There were plenty of weird characters around, including Dan Hannan, now Baron Hannan. He was one of the oddest people in 80s right wing politics; born in Peru, of English ancestry whose family made a fortune during the years of the far right junta. He came to the UK to finishing school then Oxford where the llama farmer became a pompous toff. He was the well funded intermediary between the posh and ideological wings of the movement.
The Federation of Conservative Students was abolished by Norman Tebbit after one too many booze ups and a libel action over claims that Churchill and MacMillan were war criminals
The 2 wings, posh and ideological may have seemed on the surface to be worlds apart but their underlying politics were similar
The hard line ideologues were libertarian – they wanted the rich and privileged to be freed of any responsibility they had to the rest of society – no tax, no obligations. Implicit in this ideology was the idea that the poor would not be too happy to be fleeced by a rich elite who gave nothing in return, and some kind of authoritarian control of the lower orders would be needed; libertarianism for the rich, authoritarianism for the rest of us.
The Oxford Tories had a similar worldview; the rich can do what they like, the rest of us can do what w are told.
Those 2 ideological postions in practice were the same thing.
The third faction were even odder -the Revolutionary Communist Party. I went to the RCP summer school in the mid-80s. They were the oddest of the far left sects and by far the best resourced- while the Socialist Workers Party sold newspapers outside tube stations the RCP sold Living Marxism in WH Smiths. It’s summer school was a mix of far left posturing and media skills courses. I am still convinced that the RCP was a wholly owned subsidiary of MI5.
I have covered the strange journey of the RCP before, but lots of it’s alumni ended up providing a praetorian guard to the posh boys of Oxford Union. Shazia Murza is one of Boris’s key advisors; Claire Fox is a Brexit peer in the House of Lords, Brendon O’Neill runs attention seeking right wing website Spiked On Line, Mick Hume was in this weeks Daily Mail defending Boris from the “Remainstream Media”.
It could be money that made them switch from left to right, Spiked On-Line recieves £100,000s from US right wingers, it may also be that they come from a similar social background- most British Communists are very posh. Or it might as simple as a group who believed themselves to be a radical elite turned out to have more in common with a reactionary elite than they did with the rest of us.
It was these 3 factions; the posh, the ideological and the frankly bonkers that gave us Brexit and our current government.
It would be wrong at this point to miss out one final factor; drugs.
My first ever encounter with really posh people involved drugs – lots of weed. They were friends of a friend of mine and had been at top public schools. We sat around listening to Bob Marley and smoking dope. They would chat about their privileged lives and mutual friends while nodding along to the music with an occasional interjection: Oppression; Dem Babylon; always spoken in a cod Jamaican accent.
To this day I’ve never been able to enjoy Bob Marley, preferring always Peter Tosh and Toots Hibbert.
The Government may want to draw a line under Boris’ vote of confidence, but every time they draw a line someone snorts it. Cocaine and weed were always parts of the lifestyles of the posh and privileged and I have seen nothing of our current ruling party to persuade me that they have sobered up.
Pro-brexit lobbyists spent millions funding fake think tanks to produce wordy screeds for the leave campaign but ultimately they were irrelevant. The vision of Brexit that triumphed wasn’t the libertarian fantasies of the Warwick crowd, or the paranoia of the RCP but the empty patriotism and snobbery of the Oxford clique.
That’s why having left the EU they have no idea what to do, beyond some empty slogans about control. They have achieved what they always wanted – a world organised around themselves and their ambitions. They are ambitious for themselves but not for the country
The policies they do announce, like bringing back Imperial measures are fatuous and are aimed at headlines not reality.
The policy vacuum is filled by well connected outsiders: Zahawi, Patel, Sunak, whose political fixations are very far to the right. The British establishment was always good at spotting the occasional bright spark from inside their circle and co-opting them. Their harsh right wing instincts make them popular with Tory back benchers but miles out of touch with voters, particularly the red wall tories. They are still, however, marginal figures on the fringes of the posh clique, and whether their policies got adopted depends on whether they grab a newspaper headline.
They are attracted to Boris and his chums in the same way that Putin and his pals were attracted, They are all oligarchs, or would be oligarchs, and they see in Boris’s rule the opportunity to transform Britain, long the haven for dirty money into their own off shore banking business
The odd coalition of snobby posh boys, libertarian ideologues and communist elite may be an odd collection, but their individual motivations are straight forward.
The much odder question is why did millions of ordinary people vote for them?
If you want to read more about Boris and the Oxford Union clique I can highly recommend Simon Kuper’s “Chums, a short history of how Oxford Union Toryism gave us Boris and Brexit and the worst Government in history”
5 thoughts on “Boris 1 | Rise of the Posh Boys”
‘The much odder question is why did millions of ordinary people vote for them?’ Thereby hangs a very strange tail straight out of Joseph Goebbels playbook…
You’ll have to wait for part 2…..
Yep – good answer…!
I disappointed my English teacher by not applying for a virtual dead cert place at Balliol (she was ex-balliol and this was in the era when that kind of personal commendation counted).
Everything I’ve seen of the last decade of Tories, and the likes of Toby Young and James Dellingpole makes me think that Oxford is deeply inadequate in terms of actually providing an education, rather than developing the skill of rhetoric.
(It’s telling that Boris wrote both a pro-Brexit and pro-Remain speech before deciding which side would give him the best chance at the summit. Never left the debating society)
I agree, Simon Kuper;s book Chums, which was the starting point for these 2 blogs covers the Oxford stuff in a lot more depth than me. I was never going to Oxford , and would have hated it