John Harris

Journalist & Author

In this Dickensian season, a Victorian clique still rules | John Harris

Austerity, deference and a little charity to the poor: the nation is being recast according to the ancient mores of the upper class

Let us put aside those tweeted greetings, online orders and Jamie-authored canapes, and acknowledge it: the British Christmas is an essentially Victorian concept, and will for ever remain so. Peel back the facade of modern consumerist flash, and it is all still there: not just the bells, carols and trees, but the season’s three pillars – of family, charity and enforced jollity.

Just to heighten the sense of a season essentially unchanged in more than 150 years, we should doff our caps to a ruling clique who might have been dragged through time from the mid-19th century. Now, surely, we can confidently scoff at the coalition’s claims to being somehow “progressive”, and feel a shiver at so many of the Victorian fundamentals of Con-Dem politics – noblesse oblige, an updated notion of the undeserving poor and, naturally enough, fiscal exactitude.

It may be the time of year, but as all those budgets are hacked back, you really have to reach for your Dickens and either laugh or cry. I am certainly not the first this year to quote Mr Micawber: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short, you are for ever floored.” If only George Osborne could put it like that.

Anyway, herein is a truth that most of the media have so far been too polite – or too frit – to mention: that as decisive proof of a return to 19th-century practices, we now find ourselves governed by people from a narrower social category than has been seen in years, and one of their motivations becomes clearer by the day – to somehow recast the country according to the ancient mores of the English upper class.

The evidence is plain enough. In the wake of the election the proportion of new MPs educated privately stood at 35%, against 13% in 1997. Among Tories, the arriviste accents of the Thatcher era have gone quiet. That Nick Clegg was educated in much the same milieu as David Cameron clearly accounts for how famously they get on – at the end-of-term press conference their personas again threatened to blur into each other like a well-heeled boy band. When Vince Cable sooner or later goes, the cabinet will lose one of its few senior members with anything approaching the common touch. And inevitably, the elevated world in which so many ministers cut their teeth colours their every move. As they apparently see it, this may all be to the good. “Knowing what a great education means means there’s a better chance of getting it for all of our children,” says the prime minister. To oikish ingrates like me, their backstories prove they know far too little of the real world. Either way, the lines to be drawn from past to present are inescapable. How could it be otherwise?

Consider, for instance, schools policy. Turn to page 37 of that scholarship boy Michael Gove’s education white paper, and there it is. Among the proposed keys to good behaviour is “having traditional blazer and tie uniforms, prefects and house systems”. He has proposed his own version of a “troops to teachers” scheme whereby demobbed soldiers will bring the firm thwack of strictness into more classrooms. In all that recent parliamentary sparring about what happens on school playing fields, you will also have heard endless veneration of “competitive sport” and the glories of inter-school matches. The vision is clear – deference and discipline for all, forged in the rigour of the Officer Training Corps and the first XV.

There is more, most of it seen in the delusions that surround austerity. Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse) sells us a sepia-tinted vision of private philanthropy filling the arts funding gap, presumably because he knows the kind of people with fat enough wallets – though out in the shires, theatres and galleries know of far too few local millionaires. And in a flourish worthy of a Dickens villain, Clegg (Westminster) tells us that “poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness“, while failing to elaborate on what his government’s chosen policy of poverty minus several might entail (result misery, I would wager).

But the best example of what might be termed the Great Regression is the mirage we know as the “big society”. I have heard it said the idea was at least partly born in David Cameron’s constituency – Witney, where Oxfordshire meets the Cotswolds – and the theory makes perfect sense. Here, Toryism remains plummy-voiced and patrician. The poor are few enough to be helped by scores of charities, plenty of other people have enough time and money to lend a hand – and as the state withdraws and leaves the “chaotic” scenes advocated by Cameron’s outrider Nick Boles (Winchester), a lot of people will rise to the challenge. But how one applies a model that might work in Woodstock to, say, Manchester’s Moss Side, is anyone’s guess.

Still, such problems will doubtless be smoothed over by an elite who govern with a very familiar mixture of elegance and sophistry. As ever, what is harsh andquitous is sold to the great unwashed as a matter of self-reliance and the cleansing of the soul, while the odd sop – such as the paltry pupil premium – creates the impression of bigger hearts than they actually possess. These are much the same tricks as those used by the English ruling class down the ages, though this lot at least have a few updates. Behold, for instance, a government busy throwing hundreds of thousands on the dole and increasing poverty, but then assuring us of their compassion via a plan for a “general wellbeing index“. You might like to think of it as Dickensian cant redressed in Boden casualwear.

This, as well as the chill spread by the cuts themselves, may be part of the reason why some people end the year in such an angry state. Note another scene worthy of the 19th century: in the midst of a biting winter, the mob so cruelly attacking the heir to the throne as his carriage crawled down Regent Street. Brief seasonal cheer may cut through the bitterness – but now, as then, all in the kingdom is far, far from well. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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