Mercifully, I didn’t listen to most of yesterday’s debate. I was enjoying the pleasures of a spring evening in the shadow of the South Downs; I set out just as the sun was beginning to set. The common near to my home was a lush green. The lads were out playing rugby in the fading light. A middle aged woman in a black cardigan walked her dog, humouring it, coaxing it away from taking an ardent interest in a bench that the winter had stripped of paint. There is something altogether gentle about such scenes, when nature, sunlight and even the breeze work in harmony to create a landscape in which one can believe all elements exist to soothe. This setting was only disrupted by the return of the airplanes: the few vapour trails I saw looked like hairline cracks in the sky.
It was with reluctance that I went home and switched on the radio. Unlike last week’s debate, it was clear that this event was more finely balanced. Clegg, however, did something which was alien to the other two party leaders: he actually tried to address the questions he received. Furthermore, when Cameron and Brown went off on tangents, Clegg was the most consistent in his attempts to steer the discussion back to the original point. On that basis, it was another win for the Liberal Democrats, though less of a barnstormer than the last one. Clegg does not have feet of clay; the “Great Yellow Surge” has perhaps solidified as a result.
What caught my attention most, however, was David Cameron’s performance. At first glance, this may seem perverse. But I couldn’t get over the idea that the man was simply disconnected from the audience he was trying to address. No doubt his sound-bites were all well rehearsed and had been focus group tested. But the way he recited them lacked conviction and understanding; while he is able to comprehend human suffering on an abstract level, he lacks the tactile engagement with the nitty gritty of every day life which any good leader requires. This is likely a result of his back story, and it is something neither he, nor much of his front bench, have overcome.
Britain should have consigned the class system to the dustbin of history. The Old Etonians were supposed to have taken their last bow during the days of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Say what you will about John Major, but at least he represented a Conservatism that had its roots among people who were not at all posh: he understood what it was like to be broke and unemployed. This background gave him a feel for the public he sought to govern: the clever use of the soap box in the 1992 election, the lack of fear in facing down hecklers, even little touches like allowing his ardent support for Chelsea FC to show, indicated that for all the grandeur of his position, he retained some awareness of the nation’s true demeanour.
This cannot be said of Cameron. For all his years in public relations, his skillful use of design and marketing, he simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be worried about fundamental, day-to-day issues like lacking money. He hasn’t ever gone down to a Job Centre and registered for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Yes, he has experienced hardship insofar as he and his wife had a disabled child, but at least he was in a position, should it have been required, to afford whatever treatment he wanted. Other parents have children who are just as ill, but have to wonder and worry about the quality of their local hospitals. In that scenario, speeches about a “Big Society” and personal empowerment are worryingly vague. Most people experience government as a utility, not as a charitable mission, and they want that utility to function properly.
As a migrant, I am an outsider to Britain’s class system; my most direct exposure to it came from working in a company in which all the senior managers had attended the same public school. I found I couldn’t get anything done largely because stating directly that things were in a poor state and needed to be fixed was entirely too radical for the old boys who went hunting on the weekends. The Peter O’Toole film, “The Ruling Class”, also heightened my awarenesss; in it, O’Toole plays the 14th Earl of Gurney who, at first, is a harmless loony. However, thanks to some botched psychological treatment, he comes to believe he is Jack the Ripper. He becomes more popular with his colleagues and neighbours upon adopting the Ripper persona, as he expresses a strong belief in capital punishment and flogging. While some of his family suspect all is not well, “Jack” is able to win over his sole interlocutor by singing the Eton Boating Song.
It would not surprise me if Cameron could sing the same tune; the first line, according to “The Ruling Class”, states “Harrow may be more clever”. This is a true statement if the vague and unconvincing Conservative Manifesto is any indication. That aside, I am not suggesting that he is so dim as to be unaware that his background is a problem; however, unlike Nick Clegg (also public school educated) who broadened his horizons by learning several languages and living abroad, his attempts to address the issue have been more show than real. Yes, he has given intimate interviews. Yes, he’s tried to open up the list of Conservative candidates to include more ethnic minorities and women: however, a quick look at that list reveals a fair number of double-barrelled surnames and other WASP fetishes. In short, the dissonance remains, rather as if he’s playing a piano that’s out of key. Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said is as follows: John Major, in his day, could hit the right notes but Cameron can’t. This, above all other factors, may explain why an unpopular government has been able to cling on as tenaciously as it has, and why a Liberal surge has been greeted with widespread relief as well as hope. Most people may not understand the culture at Eton; but they understand that those who drank deep of Eton’s culture may have problems understanding them.
Lest this be seen as a form of “reverse snobbery”, it is worth mentioning that it is possible to have a grand upbringing and yet have the ability to tap into the British psyche. I dare say Harold Macmillian in his early years was better at it than Cameron. Then, Macmillian used his Etonian credentials to suggest he was a figure of stability; he didn’t bother to try to “hang with the kids”. The present Conservative attempt to do so has all the cringeworthy qualities of a middle aged man trying to wear leather pants and a fishnet vest down at a rave. The fact that is working about as well as a painfully out-of-place middle aged man’s attempts to pick up teenage girls is perhaps the most cheering aspect of the election. The grand battles of class warfare are over, but that doesn’t mean that we want a revival of a ruling class in any form; maybe when the Conservatives understand this, they will experience a true renaissance. However, that might mean they would cease to be who they are.