HomeEducational StagesAdult EducationThe indiscreet charm of the British ruling class

The indiscreet charm of the British ruling class

It felt oddly incongruous to receive an end-of-year video message from Britain’s latest unelected Conservative Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, a bit like getting a state of the nation address from your accountant. I would like to think though that if my accountant got in touch he might at least have some news about his rates in the new year, or when he would be open for business after the holidays. Not Mr Sunak, however. He didn’t want to talk about that sort of thing; policy, I mean. He was all about feelings: he wanted me to share his ‘pride’ about being British, though he didn’t specify the aspect of the British experience of which he felt particularly proud. The unequal distribution of wealth, perhaps, since he is most certainly a beneficiary of that, or the way in which people’s life chances are skewed in favour of the already privileged (ditto)? But it wasn’t just his feelings that interested Mr Sunak – he wanted to talk about mine too. Like some seductive ASMR siren, he wished me ‘relief’ and ‘peace of mind’. He didn’t want me to worry about the future. He wanted me to ‘feel hopeful’. Things are going to be ok, he assured me. He wanted me to ‘live in a country where things feel fair’ (he knows my triggers!). Worried about paying the bills or heating your home or what will happen if you get sick or need an ambulance? Be reassured. Mr Sunak understands.

This wasn’t the only peculiar thing about Mr Sunak’s message. He chose to speak while leaning forward over a camera perched at an angle below him, so that he resembled a kindly uncle asking his toddler niece or nephew what they got for Christmas. There was also the oddly familial tone, the out-of-place, awkward chumminess and the put-on hesitant delivery; a vague gesture, I suppose, in the direction of the humanness his critics feel he lacks. But, most of all, there was the complacency, the baseless, unfathomable complacency. This was certainly not the new year message of the leader of a country in crisis, which Britain most certainly is, with its shattered, under-funded heath service, its broken transport infrastructure, its low wages, poverty and inequality, its sewage-ridden waterways and its god-awful oligarch-operated press. Nor was it the message of a man who considers his audience to be his equals, partners in rising to the challenges we face. Far from it. We were to trust him to sort it all out. We were not to worry our little heads about inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. Mr Sunak and his nice colleagues would deal with it.

This mixture of complacency and contempt has become typical of Britain’s ruling party in recent years, particularly under Mr Sunak’s old boss Boris Johnson, who probably pulled off the ‘ordinary chap doing his best, making the tough decisions for the good of the country’ persona with most success. Where Mr Sunak gave the game away was in his discussion of fairness. For him, this meant rewarding people who are ‘working hard and doing the right thing’ while ensuring other people are not able to ‘beat the system and break the rules and get away with it’. Working hard and doing the right thing was also a catchphrase of Mr Sunak’s immediate predecessor Liz Truss. Loosely translated it means ‘Work hard, keep quiet and follow our rules and you will be ok’. Fairness is about ensuring others follow those rules too and punishing those who don’t. But what about those who change the rules so that their friends can enrich themselves? What about the fairness of the system itself? Shouldn’t the rule-makers be accountable? These are questions Mr Sunak and his friends would prefer you not to think about. They would rather you were preoccupied with what the family up the street are getting in benefits or the jobs this week’s immigrant menace might threaten. But, of course, the odd person breaking the rules or getting something they don’t deserve is not the driver of unfairness in Britain – it is the system itself and the people who perpetuate it. Unfairness is its intended outcome and it is this unfairness that Mr Sunak and his colleagues wish to defend. It’s what puts caviar on the table, after all. That is why the height of their ambition is not a country that is fair, but one that merely feels as though it is.

When, a few days later, in his first major speech as PM, Mr Sunak did sketch his policy agenda, it was notably vague and so lacking in ambition that critics noted that much of it would, almost certainly, happen anyway, whether government intervened or not. It was a shopping list of items which we either had already or would not miss. His focus, he said, would be on halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists, and legislating to stop small-boat crossings to the UK. The first four of these are expected to occur naturally as the economy strengthens and the NHS starts to reduce its current backlog. The only promise that should require actual government action is the pledge to prevent refugees crossing the channel (but even here his pledge is only to ‘pass new laws’). Beyond this, there was no plan for recovery and no indication of what, concretely, the government might do to vouchsafe the future of the NHS, build a better, more productive, higher-wage economy or improve the public education system, which has suffered a decade or so of underfunding while the income of publicly subsidised private schools has continued to rise (a PM interested in fairness might start here).

Mr Sunak termed his pledges the ‘people’s priorities’, another throwback to the favoured language of his predecessors, but, of course, they are nothing of the sort. I suppose if Mr Sunak were interested in what issues people consider priorities he would ask them. But, of course, he does not want to do this – no politician would since they would almost certainly not like everything they hear. And Mr Sunak may not like to hear that the people’s priorities include things like decent pay (including for nurses, railway workers, postal workers, etc.), reliable infrastructure, publicly owned utilities that aren’t trying to make profit out of basic need, affordable homes, fair taxes, a high-quality education offer accessible to everyone and honest, independent politicians who aren’t run by foreign billionaires and funded through shell companies. Those, for what it’s worth, would be some of mine.

There are really two messages in Mr Sunak’s speech. One is to the public and is along the lines of ‘Don’t worry, we are doing our best and if we could do more, rest assured we would’. The other, more important, one is to the people who fund the Tory party and treat Britain as a sort of bottomless piggy bank to be raided at will: ‘Nothing is really going to change. We’re just throwing them a few sops. It’s just a lot of guff, really. The present discontent will blow over. We’ll soon have them fighting amongst themselves again and you can get back to looting the public sector. And don’t worry, we know who we work for.’ It is too easy to dismiss the high-handed disregard politicians like Mr Sunak have for the working public as an example of the primal snobbery of the English ruling class. It is certainly this, but it is also more. It is part of a continuing attack on working class life and values – a kind of covert class war.

The Tory myth that if you work hard, you and your family will get a better life has never been more demonstrably false. Yet it is repeated constantly because some people believe it and it is divisive. It sets people against each other. There are those who do the right thing and those who expect something for nothing, the story goes. It is not by accident that the writings of Conservative politicians are replete with disparaging descriptions British working people. They are ‘the worst idlers in the world’, according to Kwarteng, Patel, Raab and Truss, and ‘drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless’, in Johnson’s view (Sunak probably hasn’t met enough of them yet to form a judgement). It’s amazing how ingrained this belief is, how much responsibility these supposed ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ are made to bear for the wrongs of society. But the reality is, there are very few people who expect something for nothing, and certainly not enough to constitute a threat to the established order. In fact, the vast majority of the 14.5 million people in poverty in Britain are from working households. Around two-thirds of working-age adults in poverty in Britain live in a household where at least one adult is in work.

This disdain for the working poor is not trivial. It is toxic and incredibly damaging. It is also perfectly deliberate – a strategy designed to keep things just as the wealthy and privileged like them. It is used as an excuse not to support struggling families or to lessen the burden of escalating food and energy costs. It helps persuade people that the cause of poverty is not low wages and a high cost of living but the fecklessness of working people, their inability to cook or budget, in the words of Conservative MP Lee Anderson. It helps ensure that UK welfare payments are among the lowest in the OECD and supports the widely held perception that they are among the highest. While some of the problems Britain faces are shared with other comparable countries, Britain’s classism – it’s toxic snobbery and fake meritocracy – is one of the reasons it hurts us so much more than others. Most of us live our lives just one paycheck or bill away from calamity. We hear a lot about the envy of the working class, as though that was what was driving nurses, railway workers and others to demand decent pay, but we hear far too little about the greed of the wealthiest – Adam Smith’s ‘masters of the universe’ who believe the world and its resources belong to them – or about the class hate that is casually used to justify poverty and exclusion.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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