While most prejudices are now forbidden, either in law or in the court of political opinion, one prejudice remains very much alive. Not only is it acceptable, but from some quarters it is actively encouraged. That prejudice is the one regarding so-called toffs.
It’s the prejudice certain comedians on the present circuit play to in much the same way discredited comedians of the 1970s used to play to sexism, homophobia and racism. And by the look on their faces as they deliver their lines, it’s quite clear they accept it as entirely normal and unremarkable, much like the 1970s comedians… etc.
Criticising comedians and politicians for this blind spot is easy enough, but it is less satisfying to criticise writers who are trying to answer more nuanced questions and only stumble in their attempt.
Howard Jacobson, of Independent Voices, illustrates this problem. A celebrated writer, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, he writes the sort of articles you’d read no matter the topic. But he gets himself into a bind over Ed Miliband’s conference speech.
He mentions that Ed Miliband, in declaring his Jewishness and assuming the public will not penalise his electoral chances for doing so, is going some way to prove that maybe we really are living in One Nation. And he has a point. Britain is a tolerant country, and this is something that should make us proud. But why is it necessary to then pitch Miliband’s Jewishness as in some sort of competition with toffishness?
Political polemic is perfectly acceptable, expected even, but when it both refers to and uses language and methods that are hypocritical, it is frustrating for the reader who does not share those prejudices. If we are to accept (quite rightly) that someone’s Jewishness (or any other -ess, for that matter) should not be used as an excuse for arbitrary discrimination, then surely we should extend the same curtesy to those with a ‘posh’ background.
Some might scoff at the very notion. Being a toff is not about being posh or rich, they might suppose; its about being superior, above others and discriminatory; its an attitude that can be changed rather than an ethnicity or sexual orientation that cannot be changed. And anyway, toffs are in a position of privilege and so cannot be victims of prejudice or discrimination or anything else like that; and even if they are they probably deserve it and we call that positive discrimination which is fine.
But differentiating between toffs (bad) and posh (begrudgingly acceptable) is not the aim of this sort of argument. By suggesting and insinuating, and by associating the pejorative word toff with Tories and wealth and poshness, the rhetoric is trying to achieve something quite specific: the tarnishing of the Tory party. They do that pretty well themselves, you might argue. Well, perhaps that’s right, but it doesn’t make this sort of hypocritical political practice right.
Jacobson also dwells on Andrew Mitchell’s reported insult to the Downing Street police. Why? It happened, sort of, and is much disputed, but why is it relevant? And why does he subtly take the supposed insult, ‘____ plebs,’ out of its policing context? Is he by any chance prompting us to believe that Mitchell, and by extension all Tories, think every non-Tory in the country is a ‘pleb’ who needs to be kept in their place?
It is strange to think that ‘the Bullingdon Club’ or ‘David Cameron’s toffishness’ are of any relevance in a party leader’s conference speech – the one great occasion he has a captured audience and can concentrate on policy according to merits. Come on, lift your sights. And it is especially strange when the central theme is ‘One Nation’ politics. Is this some ‘unity in division’ mantra I’ve not heard about?
But this is all about massaging opinion, and, while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, there is something wrong when it distorts and generalises and resorts to stereotype – just the things Miliband and his supporters denounce in others. It’s hypocritical.
And the juxtaposition Jacobson chooses to dwell on is with Ed Miliband’s Jewishness. The reader is invited to compare the Jew and the toff, the Bullingdon club and the synagogue, and to make a choice – one of them good, the other bad. And if you choose unwisely, not only are you arrogant and superior but a racist as well.
I try not to make baseless assumptions, negative or otherwise, about anyone (though I surely fail, as we all do sometimes), and certainly not about Jews; Jacobson says, quite legitimately, through the prism of Miliband’s ‘radical Jewish family,’ that the Jews ‘have had trouble finding anywhere to sit peaceably for the past 500 years’ – and I won’t disagree with that, for some.
But what do these two things have to do with one another? Nothing. And inviting us to see them, even though he attributes this view to Miliband, as perhaps choices that have to be made, must be made, is unhelpful. In fact, it’s not unhelpful, its verging on mendacious.
Are we to see a political divide between not just the toffs and the rest of the country (people united in their plebishness, some might hope), but between the toffs and the Jews, and any other minority groups we might mention, which of course are inherently virtuous, and obviously not toffs, and so obviously not Tory, which is who we are really taking about here?
And do ‘we surmise,’ that “____ plebs” is ‘exactly what the Tories call the rest of us?’ I think not. Miliband, Labour supporters and the like, maybe (some of them); but certainly not all of us. Making this sort of generalisation is to resort to stereotype and prejudice, which are just the things the Left (and, in the interests of balance, some on the other side of the seesaw, no doubt) spends so much time denouncing in people who don’t necessarily support their world view.
But at least Jacobson uses the word surmise, which at least recognises there might not be any evidence for the given belief. Yet this is not what one reads here, this is not the message the reader takes away from such an article; quite the opposite.
If you want someone to believe something is true, then first you have to say it. And if you say what you want others to believe often enough, surmising it or not, beliefs and attitudes become received opinion, irrespective of their veracity.
I suppose these comments should not be directed at Howard Jacobson at all, because he is only reporting and commenting on the perceived opinions and motives of Ed Miliband in his speech. Miliband is the one driving a wedge between the toffs and everyone else, between those who look down on people and those who look on their potential. He is the one who treats people like people, and not objects for Tory aggrandisement who should know their place.
But where Jacobson and Miliband are in accord is in their jointly held assumption that you can pursue ‘One Nation’ politics by dividing that nation down the middle and then either grossly generalising about the other half or pretending it does not exist at all.
It may, in a partial way, be accurate to say that ‘Miliband was uniting (or attempting to unite) all those who feel they have come from the margins of society, or been forced back into the margins of society, with those whose nature is essentially liberal and welcoming.’ But he was not doing it with noble ways and means. His method seems to be less noble, that by appealing to and indeed fostering some people’s sense of grievance, he can unite them against the hated toffs and Tories.
This is not One Nation politics, this is not discussion of policy: this is Division Politics.
Though was it ever much different?