Mea culpa: 'I'm not a sort of "all right luv, I'm down at the pub tonight" kind of guy. But obviously I've come across in this way' (Charles Dharapak/AP)
In his new book, The Gentry: Stories of the English (Harper Press, £25), Adam Nicolson concludes that, after a long period during which the very idea of "the gentleman" appeared to be dying out, the Conservative-Liberal coalition that took power in 2010 is led by men from precisely the kind of families that governed Britain at the local, and latterly the national, level from the Anglo-Saxons of the tenth century to the Anglosphere of the twentieth. It was, Nicolson contends, not the nobility, but the squirearchy, the services, the clergy, the professions and the merchants who actually ran the counties and hence the country. David Cameron epitomises this largely rural ruling class, his slogan of the Big Society merely a sentimentalised, ideological version of the traditional ideals of the gentry.
It is an unexpected twist, this resurrection of a moribund class — so unexpected, indeed, as to occasion a torrent of satire and ridicule, much of it consisting in variations on that most British theme of class consciousness, the public schoolboy. Cameron the Old Etonian and his expensively educated cronies have been lampooned by every comedian and cartoonist in the land, often in cruel and unusual ways. But this Cabinet of all the toffs has emerged unscathed from its baptism of ordure: we may be amused but have remained resolutely unperturbed by the reiteration of Tory privilege. This may in part be attributed to the residual memory of conspicuous consumption among the higher echelons of New Labour, not least Tony Blair, who is himself a product of the same upper-middle class as Cameron & Co. Just as the most upwardly mobile Blairite of them all, Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, professed to be "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" (though he isn't at all relaxed about his own fortunes), so the great British public is intensely relaxed about Tories being hideously white, smugly married and frightfully pukka. To most of us, it matters less who wields the power than what they do with it. The main drawback of a politician having a privileged upbringing as far as the public is concerned is the risk that he or she will not be tough enough.
To David Cameron, however, it matters a great deal that he be a gentleman and that he be seen as one. He is right that the ideal is so deeply rooted in English culture that the nation would recoil at any suggestion that the Prime Minister might be capable of conduct unbecoming of a gentleman. The one unforgivable crime is still lying to one's peers in the House of Commons. Lies to the press are also serious, but not necessarily resigning matters, because they do not always break the gentlemanly code of conduct. Sex and money, the cause of many a political downfall, are generally fatal only if dishonesty is involved. Peculation, for example, is still viewed comparatively leniently: the only MPs who have gone to prison over the expenses scandal are those who had deliberately committed fraud. All the same, rich politicians are expected to "give something back". Cameron is no plutocrat, but he is well aware that the public has certain expectations of a man of his background.Perhaps the most important of these concerns the treatment of women.
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