2 February 2024

The politics of manners and the uses of inequality

By Sir Peregrine Worsthorne

Hereditary privilege is unfashionable these days – even Conservatives are more comfortable talking about meritocracy and equality of opportunity. Yet class remains a defining feature of British society and a source of enduring fascination. And in delightfully snobby 1988 address to the Centre for Policy Studies – which CapX is republishing today to mark our 10th anniversary and the 50th of the CPS – Peregrine Worsthorne argued that a stratified society was not only necessary, but preferable.

He was speaking at a time when Thatcherism had restored wealth and dynamism to Britain, but also created a new class of person: the ‘yuppy’. These Worsthorne derides as vulgar, particularly by comparison to the old ‘Establishment’ characterised by ‘good manners and behaviour, correct speech [and] clean linen’. The speech is a lament for a Britain long passed, of plummy accents, gentlemen’s clubs and country houses – where a journalist could consider himself upper class. While few would wish to go back, can we say with full confidence that what we have replaced it with is better?

This is an abridged extract. You can read the full pamphlet here.

Mention of the upper class usually gets me into trouble. People switch off or begin to mock. So let me hasten to say that I am not about to call for the restoration of the British aristocracy. All I am saying is that yuppy new wealth has come into being at a time when there are no generally understood criteria of the duties of wealth, old as much as new. Lords and Ladies nowadays, if the gossip columns are to be believed, seem to behave, as often as not, as vulgarly and disagreeably as do yuppies, and to be almost indistinguishable from yuppies. No, it is most certainly not my intention to recommend the contemporary hereditary upper class as a model of anything.

But in their defence, I would maintain that they are the products of a long period when vulgarity was almost required of them, as a mark of respectability or acceptability in the age of the common man. Not to be vulgar was to give oneself airs. In any case, since the gentlemanly game was up, why continue to play by the rules? Having been confined to the dustheap of history, the upper classes took on the colouring and the aroma of refuse.

I have watched this process from its early beginnings after the war – so many admirable public schoolmen with good war records returning to find themselves out of a job; out of the jobs, that is, they were brought up to do. After the First World War, it was the private soldiers who returned to a country that had no place for them. After the Second, the same fate applied more to the officer class whose amateurish role in society was increasingly usurped by professionals. I am exaggerating, of course. The rate of change was not as sudden as I am suggesting; not nearly sudden enough for radical extremists. And many of those I am remembering did succeed in adapting to the spirit of the age, going into advertising and even journalism. But many more did not, and in the Fifties one saw them hanging around the London clubs like lost souls. Relatively few of my contemporaries were killed in the Second World War; far fewer than my father’s in the First World War. But a higher proportion of my friends than his failed to make the grade after the war, and in some ways their slow disintegration in an alien world which had no time for them was almost sadder – because less tragic – than the heroes death at the Front of an earlier generation.

Hereditary wealth remained to a surprisingly large extent intact, as did privilege, Britain’s social revolution after the war was very gentle and civilised, materially speaking. But the egalitarian Zeitgeist left nobody in any doubt that in the new Jerusalem being built by Labour the hangovers of aristocracy were a liability rather than an asset, objects more of ridicule than of admiration to all Left-minded people, It was a pity they couldn’t be legislated out of existence, But that was impossible under our Parliamentary system. So for the time being there was no choice but to put up with this albatross until it died of natural causes (rather as the Bolsheviks in Russia have had to put up with Christianity), and to complain all the time that it was not dying nearly fast enough for the country’s good. Outwardly the class system continued. That is to say its forms were preserved
– Eton, Oxbridge, Brigade of Guards, Ascot and so on. But what was it all for? Into what social scheme of things did this continuation of privilege fit? Confusion reigned, to the point where Eton boys, for example, self-consciously developed oikish accents and the likes of Lord Harlech (British Ambassador and President Kennedy’s friend) would dress down in jeans for dinner and make those who arrived in black the feel that it was they who had committed some social gaffe. Upper class accents, correct diction, formal clothes, good manners, superior education, even morally correct behaviour, instead of bestowing social authority on a man, actually detracted from it. It was a social advantage to be common and a distinct drawback to be cultivated. Of course, egalitarianism cannot be blamed for all these developments. But a reigning doctrine that says Jack is as good as his master, that rank is the result of past exploitation, that proletarian values are best, was bound to demoralise the old upper class by obliging it to pay lip service to a whole set of notions in which it could not genuinely believe.

Given socialist assumptions about the shape of the future, a demoralised upper class was obviously not something to worry too much about. In no time there would be a new classless society made up of public spirited citizens all bound together by feelings of communal solidarity born out of social justice. In that brave new world there would be no need for a ruling class endowed with social authority since everybody
would voluntarily want to behave well; to work hard, to serve the community and so on. Under socialism there would be far less crime, far less violence, far less aggression, all of which were the inevitable consequences of an unjust system. Property was theft. So all that was needed to abolish theft was to abolish private property.

Of course I am over-simplifying. Intelligent socialists, like Tony Crosland, did not intend to abolish private property. But an essential tenet of their socialist faith was the belief in socialism’s morally uplifting consequences. People would become more civic-minded; better citizens; more law-abiding; more considerate and sensitive to the needs of others, and so on. In other words, there would no longer be any call for authority figures to impose social control from above, since socialism would have removed the causes of deviant behaviour.

Whether or not such an ideal socialist society is ever attainable I do not know. Suffice it to say that it was not attained and is so unlikely ever to be attained as not to be worth considering at this stage of human development. It was not proceeded with if only because the economic consequences of trying to attain the ideals in a free society – trade union power, high taxation and, above all, inflation – nearly ruined the nation. So much became clear in the last years of the Callaghan Government. Something had to be done to restore industrial discipline, to allow managers to manage.

Under Mrs Thatcher something has been done. At least on the shop floor there is now once again a clear chain of command. Jack is not as good as his master. It is accepted on all sides – even by the Labour Party – that the master deserves to be paid more than the man and that his orders have to be obeyed. The idea that businesses can be run on the basis of co-operation between equals has pretty well entirely gone out of fashion, except as a kind of incantation which fools nobody except possibly the Liberal Party’s industrial spokesmen. And most workers, let alone managers, seem to find the restoration of hierarchy something of a relief. They know where they stand.

But so far this recognition that hierarchy may be a good idea applies largely to people at work. The inevitability that some people have to give orders and others obey them is seen as the high price society must pay to get the economy moving again; part of a necessary efficiency drive. But increasingly in the late 1980s we are beginning to realise that there are other pressing problems over and above getting the economy moving again; problems to do with law and order, good behaviour in public places, good manners, social obligation. And the question that now needs to be posed is whether the restoration of hierarchy might have as constructive a role in alleviating these problems as it has had in alleviating our economic problems. It has been found necessary to allow some people to become much richer than others, much more powerful than others, in order to restore prosperity to Britain – the restoration, if you like, of a boss class.

But our challenge today is to restore civilisation to Britain, to alleviate social rather than economic disorder, and the question that ought to be asked is whether the restoration of hierarchy might prove as beneficial socially as it has economically. In other words, do we need a new social class as well as a new boss class, not just functionally superior people who give orders and provide leadership in particular fields – business, banking, the professions, etc. – but socially superior people who exercise a much more intangible kind of civilising influence across the board?

In these kind of waters one soon gets out of one’s depth. So let me begin cautiously at the shallow end. I am much struck when travelling on the underground either to or from work, how business and professional people nowadays seem to think that their responsibilities begin and end at the place of work. On the underground they sit as does any yobbo – lolling in the seat with their legs wide apart. Their verbal language often is equally loutish and they never get up to let old ladies have their seats. At work they do behave like superior persons, accepting extra responsibilities as a result of their executive position – staying late, renouncing holidays and so on. But off duty their behaviour and manners are quite indistinguishable, say, from those of the building site labourer. In the socialist dream world this would not matter at all, since the building site labourer would have become as much of a gentleman as the doctor or lawyer. But the socialist dream world has not come about.

Instead of everybody becoming a gentleman, it is more a case of everybody becoming a yobbo – not at work, where hierarchy has restored a measure of discipline – but when not at work, or when at play. Of course this matters dreadfully. Our public places are becoming increasingly disagreeable and dangerous. This used not to be the case very largely because hierarchy played a part in maintaining order and decorum outside the place of work quite as much as inside.

Before the dawn of equality, there were lots of authority figures around in public places – as many authority figures as there were members of the upper and middle classes. Almost everybody respectably dressed and speaking with the right kind of accent – women nearly as much as men – was an authority figure able to over-awe merely by his or her presence. One such person in a railway carriage was enough to promise order and decorum and to deter bad behaviour. Nowadays only a policeman in uniform can be relied upon to have that effect. A vicar can’t, a doctor can’t and most certainly a peer of the realm can’t.

In some ways this is a good thing. It is a good thing that ordinary people should no longer have to go around in fear and trembling of their so-called social superiors. But in other ways it is a bad thing. A plummy accent provokes more ridicule than respect, and to be well-dressed and politely spoken is more a reason to keep quiet and retain a low profile than to start throwing one’s weight around. But is it wholly desirable that decades of egalitarian indoctrination should have knocked all the stuffing out of the top sections of society and all the deference out of the bottom sections? If the result had been a spirit of fraternal and comradely civic responsibility uniting all sections of society, that might have been desirable.

But that, as we have seen, has not happened. What has happened is that we have all the evils of divisiveness arising from great economic inequalities without any of the advantages of social control which traditionally go with class stratification.

Incentives to rise 

The economic dynamic of greed is now very much back in favour, at least within the Conservative Party; and we all wonder how anybody was ever so naive as to suppose that an efficient economy could ever function without giving it considerable scope. But the dynamic of snobbery has not yet been re-legitimised, and very few Tories seem at all aware of the part it used to play, and could again play, in raising social standards.

That a man should aspire to own more expensive goods – that is accepted as a desirable motivation, since it might be expected to add to national wealth. But that the same man might also aspire to a superior social class, that is felt to be socially undesirable – mere snobbery, without any beneficial purpose. But a desire to rise socially does have a useful purpose; is indeed an essential part of the civilising process.

Good manners and decorous behaviour have always been very much the products of an unequal, hierarchical society. Those at the top, the upper class, wanted to differentiate themselves from the untutored, unwashed and coarse-grained masses by adopting refined and polished ways f doing things which were difficult and expensive to emulate. This only provoked those lower down in the social scale, the middle class, to make redoubled efforts to join the elite club by overcoming these obstacles, which in turn provoked the upper class to become even more polite and refined. Thus was the civilising process energised with a permanently upward dynamic.

In theory this civilising process could have continued until all sections of society had become polished and refined – first the middle and then the lower classes, and indeed this was precisely what was happening until about 20 years ago when doctrinaire socialist egalitarians put the whole process in reverse.

Their doctrine was as follows: because good manners and behaviour, correct speech, clean linen and so on were originally the hallmark of privilege (and privilege was bad) they must be bad too. Good manners were elitist and exclusive and therefore undemocratic. They were, it was alleged – quite rightly alleged
– a form of social control practised by the few over the many. For the many to triumph, therefore, it was not enough simply to change the economic and political order. Equally important was to change the social and cultural order – the way people dressed and spoke – to the point where the ambitious, instead of feeling it necessary to emulate the upper classes, felt it necessary to emulate the working classes.

True, Thatcherism has changed some of that. The ambitious no longer feel compelled to emulate the working class in terms of consumption. They drive more expensive cars than do the working class (Porsches rather than Sierras), drink champagne rather than beer, eat caviare rather than fish and chips, and in many cases even refrain from wearing jeans which for twenty years were a kind of classless uniform whose effect on sartorial standards was scarcely less disastrous than that of high-rise blocks on domestic architecture. But they make no attempt whatsoever to be more civilised, to have better manners, to be less loud-mouthed, to be more public-spirited, there being no social group to which they aspire that makes these things a condition of entry into their charmed circle. But there could, once again, be such a group, if the new rentier class which is even now coming into existence, in conjunction with old wealth which is being given a new economic lease of life, combined to create one; combined to create a contemporary way of life that compelled admiration and emulation. The means for such a way of life – inherited wealth – are going to be there and all that is required to transform potentiality into reality is a change in the wind of intellectual fashion. Out of the soil of rentier wealth in the 19th and early 20th century a thousand blossoms bloomed, many of them highly progressive; that is always the risk.

Bloomsbury was one such, as were the Webbs; and I sometimes think that the best hope for a socialist revival lies in the kind of public-spirited do-goodism which only a rentier class can supply.
But it can supply much more than public-spirited do-goodism. It can supply so much else that is lacking today – cultural standards, custodianship of the national institutions, respect for learning, love of beauty, probity in the professions and even – with a bit of help from the old aristocracy – glamour, excitement and a certain style or what used to be called ton. All these things may well come back anyhow, once the habits of inherited wealth are learned again; but they could come back far sooner if influential people consciously willed them to do so.

Lament for the Establishment

It is all a question of getting the balance right, the balance between excessive social ossification and excessive social fluidity. More and more in recent years we have become accustomed to viewing matters of class from the point of view of the individual.

How unfair, we say, that somebody should enjoy a higher or lower position in society than he deserves on account of the accident of birth or breeding. Yes, indeed. Nobody would dissent from that proposition. But the matter cannot be left there.

For the good of society in general also comes into the question, and I would like to argue that a society in which all the top people had got there on merit would have many obvious and serious disadvantages, some of which I have already mentioned.

But I have left to the last the one I think may be the most important, or at any rate the one that in recent years I am most conscious of: the extent to which the growth of a meritocracy has spelt the death of what we used to call the ‘the Establishment’. As everybody knows, the Establishment in its heyday was that intangible and invisible supervisory body made up of the good and the great, whose writ reached all those parts of the body politic – like the security services – which the more formal supervisory bodies located at Westminster and Whitehall could not reach. Nobody quite knew where the Establishment was located. Some said Whites, or clubland in general. More likely there was no fixed address, and the location changed every weekend depending on which country houses were offering hospitality. What the Establishment did was to keep an eye on things; nip some scandals in the bud, weed out some obvious misfits from public office; uphold a particular English interpretation of liberal principles; prevent any too violent or brutal departure from the national way of doing things, and in general thwart conspiracies or campaigns against the public interest. If the Establishment had said that the SAS were right in Gibralter [sic] that would have been enough for me, because on the whole the Establishment got those kind of things right.

What we now have instead are lots of the great and the powerful at the top of their particular ladders – top businessmen, politicians, artists, journalists, bankers etc. – but no connecting social thread which links them all together into a homogeneous whole. Of course I am exaggerating. We still have a class system to some extent, as I have said. But it is meant to be on the way out. Thatcherism as much as socialism wants to get rid of it, and if it is got rid of, then the departmentalisation of the élites, which is already bad enough, will get far worse, to the point where all the various top people will more and more live in different worlds without any effective bonding process to bring them together.

The hereditary element used to be the bonding process. For in a class society the descendants of élites of previous generations absorb into their class the élites of rising generations. Thus in the course of ascending their separate professional trees, the new élites, once they have climbed above a certain level, will merge into the ruling class whose members all know each other very well, coming from the same background: the social soil, that is, out of which an Establishment grows. In a meritocracy communication between the élites at the top of all the various professional trees is bound to be stilted. The artists and the men of action, the business and the professional men, will have little in common. Relations between them will tend to be a bit formal, rather as between the members of some inter-departmental committee, Whereas relations between members of an upper class, which have matured over time, are much more intimate and therefore much more trusting. But does a democracy want a tightly knit, mutually trusting governing order? My answer would be that it does, for a reason not sufficiently understood.

In a democracy almost nothing important can be talked about truthfully except in private, for fear of being misunderstood by a mass electorate. Race cannot be spoken about openly, Aids cannot either. Nor for the most part can foreign affairs, since a sentimental public refuses to accept the inevitability of cynical ruthlessness in successful statecraft. Talk to an expert in almost any field and at some point you will hear the phrase; of course one could never say this, that or the other (i.e. the truth) In public.

So in a democracy truthful, honest, realistic discussion, ther it be about politics, medicine, education or pretty well anything else, is forced out of the public arena – nothing truthful is ever said on television – into private gatherings. In a meritocracy, such as we are increasingly becoming, that means the various élites meeting separately, with each conferring behind closed doors in a little private world of its own – doctors, dons, scientists, soldiers all being truthful and honest with each other. Clubland is a bit of a melting pot, but it is absurd to think that an occasional visit to, say, the Garrick can be a substitute for belonging to an upper class which includes representatives of all the élites and all the generations and also a few intelligent people with the leisure to think – meeting each other as a matter of course in their own homes (spacious enough for proper hospitality) and trusting each other because they have had plenty of time, including schooldays, to sort out the sheep from the goats.

A few weeks ago, Macmillan the publishers decided to hold a London launching party for Alistair Horne’s new life of Harold Macmillan, oblivious that on the date they had chosen most of the proposed guests would be in Brighton for the Tory Party conference. Clearly the publishing élite and the political élite live in separate worlds. I suppose in theory that the breaking up of the ruling class into departmentalised élites, of which this is only a tiny example, might be a good thing from the point of view of ordinary people, on the principle of ‘divide in order not to be ruled’. But in practice I suspect that as a result of the increasing lack of communication at the top, and of the growing mutual incomprehension of the various élites, many dangerous things are happening in this country, including rip-offs of ordinary people, which would not have been allowed to happen in the good old days when there was an Establishment to keep a not too unsteady eye on things, Of course the Establishment had many faults, but now that it has vanished, are we not beginning to realise that it had many virtues?


So, after all this, what are my conclusions? Nothing very specific, I fear. The most this lecture can hope to do is to set a few people thinking that there may be some virtue in inherited wealth; that inherited wealth is not only inevitable but desirable. Until recently it might reasonably have been objected that there was no point in asking people to think such heretical thoughts, since inherited wealth was on the way out along with all the other hangovers of our pre-democratic past. But it is obviously not on the way out. It is on the way back. Nor is its return being imposed from above by an unrepresentative minority. Now that ‘the haves’ are a majority it can truly be said that inherited wealth is returning to this country with the consent of the people; indeed by popular demand. But unfortunately not – and here is the rub – with the consent of the intelligentsia or with the consent of the clergy. So long as inherited wealth appears to have no raison d’être apart from being a minor and unwelcome part of Thatcherite economics, there is no hope of its acceptance by the moral voice of our society. One cannot imagine, for example, the modern public school headmaster championing inherited wealth simply on the ground that it is a lubricant that helps to make capitalism work.

But what if it could be presented as a social dynamic making for a more civilised society; as a means of replacing the politics of envy with the politics of manners; as a way of restoring authority figures other than the policeman, and custodians other than the civil servant – might it then not be possible to present inherited wealth once again as an idea capable of appealing to hearts and minds as well as pockets?

I should dearly like to think so if only because otherwise Thatcherism will never be able to inspire the idealists as well as the energetic and ambitious. The re-legitimisation of inherited wealth as a moral and social force as well as an economic necessity – that should be the great Tory aim for the 1990s, and if this swansong of mine masquerading as a lecture encourages even a few Tories to think along these lines then indeed I shall have done what I set out to do.

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Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (1923-2020) was a journalist and editor of The Sunday Telegraph.