When Gordon Brown claimed the Conservative Party’s inheritance tax policy was “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton”, he must have thought he was scoring an easy political point. However, he had touched off a storm which would fascinate politicians and commentators for days, by alluding to the great unmentionable: social class.
David Cameron responded by complaining that the “petty, spiteful, stupid” line marked the start of a Labour Party-led “class war” against the wealthiest in society, and pundits speculated that Chancellor Alistair Darling would use his pre-budget report to launch swingeing attacks on those at the top of the tree. In the event, he merely proposed a one-off tax on banker bonuses over £25,000. Considering the government has already spent £850 billion bailing out the banks, the £550 million he forecast this would bring in amounts to just a drop in the bucket. Even so, he provided sufficient loopholes to protect bankers from even this puny infringement on their enormous wealth, and increased VAT, which disproportionately hits the poorest. Normal service had resumed.
The media still fretted though. As could be expected, the Tory-supporting papers made a furious defence of Cameron and his shadow cabinet, of which seventeen members were privately educated. Harry Phibbs of the Daily Mail attacked Brown for his “desperate, divisive tactic” of drawing attention to the truth. But even more interesting was ‘civil liberties defender’ Henry Porter, in the supposedly ‘progressive’ Guardian. “As a nation we’ve always been more interested in character”, he announced, so “…the better part of each one of us knows that class is an obstacle to understanding someone’s character, and is certainly no way of assessing a potential leader.”
It is at best naive – or in Porter’s case it is deliberately deceitful – to suggest that an individual’s socio-economic background has no impact on their personal politics. On the contrary, getting to grips with someone’s apparent material interests is the only way of getting to grips with them as a ‘character’, or public figure.
Cameron is a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth, and a direct descendent of King William IV and his mistress Dorothea Jordan. His family made their money in finance and grain. He attended Heatherdown Preparatory School, Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. His wife Samantha is the daughter of a baronet and a viscountess, and the Mail has estimated the Camerons’ combined wealth at more than £30 million. After graduating, he joined the Conservative Research Department, at the height of Thatcherism and the uproar over the Poll Tax. Throughout his life, Cameron has known both that he is extremely wealthy, and that this wealth must be extended and defended from those who create it. In this context, his policies of class war against the poor make a lot of sense.
Unlike some within his cabinet, Gordon Brown was not born into such great extravagance. The son of a Church of Scotland minister, he was accepted into the University of Edinburgh aged just sixteen, due to his exceptional academic ability. He wrote his PhD thesis on James Maxton, a fiery Scottish parliamentary socialist, who once called a Tory MP a “murderer” when the government withdrew school milk. However, Brown needed to pragmatically sell out his youthful idealism in order to climb the greasy pole of 1980s and 90s Westminster politics. He did so, becoming – alongside Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson – a key architect of the anti-worker New Labour project. Attacking the working class of the UK and other nations has apparently become a kind of second nature to him, even though he rose from its ranks. No less than Cameron, he now understands that his advancement must come at the expense of those Maxton sought to represent.
In 1999, then Prime Minister Blair used his party conference speech to declare that class war was “over“. So far as official circles were concerned, that was supposed to be that, at least in terms of people fighting back. A decade later, with the chasm between the elite and the rest of us still widening by the day, we are beginning to see the first signs of resistance. In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and with a massive post-election offensive planned by the ruling class, it is considered extremely dangerous for a politician even to vaguely hint at class divisions. The people who own the economy – or at least some of their paid scribes – know a powder keg situation when they see one.
Also published in issue 10 of The Commune.