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What toffs and plebs share Class becomes meaningless when you are at its extremes

The Village Enclosure at Ascot. (Photo byDave Benett/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse)

The Village Enclosure at Ascot. (Photo byDave Benett/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse)


July 22, 2021   6 mins

It’s racing season in England, with the Goodwood Cup approaching, hot on the heels of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

June and July are when the horse racing calendar reaches its peak, carnivalesque events which illustrate one of the great curiosities of English life: how so many social patterns are U-shaped — popular with the toffs at the top and the plebs at the bottom, with not much interest in between.

The most eventful day in the racing calendar is Ladies Day at Ascot, a term that dates back to an anonymous poem written in 1823 which declared: “Ladies’ Day… when the women, like angels, look sweetly divine.” Although this is the sport of kings, Ladies Day tends to be best known for the various drunken fights between women in expensive dresses, often while their menfolk lie passed out on the grass. This has become so frequent as to be almost part of English culture, like the Friday before Christmas where people are allowed to have a punch-up.

Horse racing sums up the point once made by the great Billy Connolly when he said: “The proper serious upper class are all fucking nuts and they are a great laugh. The working class are all fucking nuts and they are a great laugh. It’s just the middle that sucks. What I found when I was in the pub was the rich and the successful from millionaires’ row mixed very easily with the council house people — and it was the V-necked jumper Volvo mob who had the problem. They wondered why [the upper class] were talking to them fucking scrubbers.”

The Army is the classic example of an institution popular at both ends of the social spectrum, with public school-educated Ruperts in the officers’ mess and squaddies in the ranks, still heavily recruited from poorer areas. Except during two world wars, no one in my family, bred by hundreds of years of reading-related short-sightedness and bourgeoise cowardice, has ever considered the military. It would be almost inconceivable for someone in the middle of the English class system to do so.

But that has always been the case. The late medieval satire Le roman de Renart le contrefait observed that: “When the vassals must go to join the host, the bourgeois rest in their beds; when the vassals go to be massacred in battle, the bourgeois picnic by the river.”

Fighting was the original role of the aristocracy, and it was not until the 14th century that rich merchants like Michael de la Pole — whose father rather vulgarly made his money in wool rather than stabbing someone while riding a horse — began to enter the highest ranks. Even in modern conflict the nobility has made an outsized sacrifice, with the great public schools losing hugely disproportionate numbers in the First World War. (Old Etonians suffered twice the average casualty rate.)

Big families are another marker of class, with those at each end of the socio-demographic index having the highest fertility. True aristocrats, just like true proletariats, are also more likely to spend a great deal of time with family members, and they are both more likely to give their children wacky names, whether it’s Prince, Rara or Zenia.

Their surnames are often hard to tell apart, too. During the recent European Championship, Birmingham MP Jess Philips tweeted: “My youngest’s question for tonight ‘why do footballers never have double-barrelled names?’”

It was interpreted as being a statement on the England heroes’ proletarian origins, yet it was a strange thing to write without checking — because countless English footballers have double-barrelled names, to such an extent that it’s a cliché. Double-barrelled names are a classic example of the class U-curve.

Today horse racing remains the great class uniter, but once upon a time there were a whole variety of “sports” — essentially animal torture — enjoyed both by toffs and peasants. As Ian Mortimer recalls in his entertaining book on the Regency period, the Westminster dog pit, where hounds would rip various other animals to pieces, was tremendously popular with both the upper classes and poor; when Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, the future tsar, came to London he absolutely loved it.

Boxing was also a very upper-and-lower class sport, and fashionable gentleman known as “the Fancy” would attend London pugilist schools alongside scrawny cockneys. Poet Robert Southey said that “a boxing-match settles all disputes among the lower classes, and when it is over they shake hands, and are friends”, while the upper-class went for duelling instead.

Some aristocrats liked fighting so much they sought out the company of rough working men to give them a good scrap, among them Regency rake and eccentric, and Tory MP, “Mad” Jack Mytton. Mytton, a member of the Shropshire squirarchy, had attended Cambridge, where he drank 2,000 bottles of port and failed to graduate, before going on a Grand Tour and joining the Army. The perfect aristo.

Mytton was a great enthusiast of hunting, another popular sport among both ends of the spectrum, and when on one occasion a Welsh miner got in his way while out enjoying his favourite pastime, he dismounted and challenged him to a fight. The two men punched each other continually during 20 rounds of bare-knuckle boxing and when the Welshmen surrendered the Tory gave him 10 shillings for his trouble. A fun day was had by all.

Similarly, tattoos have historically been popular among aristocrats and the urban poor. Edward VII had a cross and George V a dragon, which he got while in the Navy, while Winston Churchill’s mother had a snake on her wrist. Tattoos are now ubiquitous and classless, but people’s social status can often still be marked out by fashion, an area where working-class men in their 20s have often aped the aristocratic look; the most famous case of this is Burberry, the brand which went from being a very Sloane Ranger/Country Life outfit to ubiquitous among football hooligans at one point.

But then perhaps the most obvious — and largely forgotten — product of upper-lower class cooperation is football itself. In Beastly Fury, his account of the birth of the national sport, Richard Sanders wrote how the football came about from a mixture of (extremely violent) public-school culture and peasant folk traditions. The game had been popular in medieval England, repeatedly banned as it invariably ended with disorder, until the custom was largely suppressed in the early Victorian period. (Remnants of the old game are still played in a few villages in England, if that’s your kind of thing.)

The aristocracy tolerated these anarchic events but the new industrialists were hostile, as were the trade unions, one union leader denouncing football as “barbarous recklessness and supreme folly”. They especially disliked how upper-class men would stand on the sidelines cheering it on as all great fun, one complaining “Your ‘Betters’ have been foremost in this fête, hallooing you like brute dogs to the strife”. Shrovetide football, often accompanied by widespread violence, was banned by middle-class campaigners who disliked the “barbarous and disgusting play of football”, as one called it.

But the rural poor loved it, as did the toffs, with variations of football surviving in the great public schools where “the ancient folk sport was given a new lease of life in the mid-nineteenth century when it came close to dying out among the common people”.

From the late 1830s there was a football scene at Cambridge University, the only problem being that all the public schools played different rules, some vastly so (Rugby especially). Football came to be pioneered by the likes of former Harrow schoolboys John and Charles Alcock, yet the real hotbed of the game was in Sheffield, home to the world’s oldest surviving football club; Sanders suggests that this was because the local folk game had lingered in this part of Yorkshire in the hill villages of Penistone, Thurlstone and Holmforth. “Association football was now essentially a fusion of the Charterhouse/Westminster-influenced game played in London and the more folk-influenced game that had emerged from Sheffield.”

Eventually football would become a heavily working-class sport, only becoming truly classless from the 1990s, but its origins lie in Connolly horseshoe theory. Unlike rugby, however, football didn’t split along class lines, because the upper-class FA were willing to accept professionalism, whereas the RFA refused, leading northern teams to form the Rugby League. Significantly, Sanders attributes this to the aristocratic confidence of football’s founders. “It may well be that this reflected the newer, lower-status public schools many of the men running rugby had attended,” he wrote, “they were less secure socially than the Eton and Harrow men who ran football and therefore less comfortable compromising.”

And this has always been the case. Aristocrats and poor can act like each other, dress like each other or indulge in the same pastimes, partly because no one is going to mistake them. As Scott Alexander explained in his seminal essay Right is the New Left, most fashions try to signal that someone is a notch above their real status, while avoiding giving the signal of being the status immediately under.

But you’re never going to be mistaken for someone several notches above or below. A few children now have double-barrelled names but one reason it has not proved so popular among progressive middle-class parents may be the signal; if you’re the first person in your family to go to university and you’re now middle class, no one is going to mistake you for a double-barrelled aristocrat who lives on an estate; but they may mistake you for a double-barrelled struggling single mum who lives on an estate.

We also tend to resent or dislike those closest to us in the pecking order. Despite the folksy image, Jess Phillips, like many prominent Labour MPs, comes from the comfortable ranks of the bourgeoisie, her mother having been a senior NHS administrator. Their hereditary class enemies are the traditionally Tory-voting members of the aristocracy and squirearchy just above them — the double-barrelled brigade — and many a political or journalistic worldview was formed by class resentments at Oxford and Cambridge, against those toffs from the Bullingdon Club. 

But while people are more likely to feel hostility to people immediately above or below them on the social spectrum, those more distant may feel either irrelevant or a curiosity. We don’t compare our lives to people unlike us, nor feel our status threatened. That might explain why people across the country continue to vote for the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, almost caricature Old Etonians, because they feel that like them, they are properly fucking nuts.


Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable

edwest

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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

For the middle class, the world is governed by rules and laws and these are their very source of truth and order in the world. The aristocracy, who for much of history were a military class, know better, that the law is only as good as your ability to enforce it. The working class operate in a similar situation, though the aristocrat looks to be above the law and the working class below it, both often operate on its fringes and therefore understand its limitations.

If the middle class has become boringly puritanical, it is in part perhaps because they cannot see any problem which cannot be legislated for and cannot comprehend that not all problems have a rational answer. This is epitomised in Human Rights legislation, a quasi religious concept which elevates the law above the legislator, in an attempt to give greater certainty to the rule of law. The contingency of democracy and the contingency of battle have much in common; which is why both are looked at with distain by the middle classes, as something which is unworthy of bestowing power.

The law is necessary but freedom requires the ability know where it’s boundaries lie, not in making it boundless. There is certainly something of this in our Prime Minister, who has an uncanny nack of knowing which boundaries he can cross without fear of reprisal.

The old aristocracy and the working classes united to bring down in this country the middle classes very own legislative Empire, the EU, which believes there is rule for everything, forgetting in human affairs, that the rules themselves are part of a never ending game. Which is perhaps why both the aristocrat and the working classes love competition?

The law, in theory at least and even if the outcome is not known in advance, should not be arbitrary but is a matter of its correct application. But the world does not deal in correct applications of abstract principals. It deals in singular unrepeatable events, were there is no correct outcome. The results of contests: military, economic, sporting or democratic do not conform to rules; (though they often do operate within them) rather than trying to eliminate this inconvenience truth, we should embrace it.

Freedom is frightening as its outcomes are unknown but the way the middle class seek to to fix this, by legislating away as many outcomes as possible, is a road to tyranny.

Bernard Hill
BH
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

…a very insightful analysis Matthew. Perhaps another dimension worth considering is how closely the middle class more strongly reflect feminine values and modes, as we see right now with Covid: “Shut the gate, stay inside, do what mummy tells you…”

Rasmus Fogh
RF
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

So you think trying to avoid getting sick is a feminine value, and giving the virus a sporting chance and daring it to do its worst is what men do? As a man I could almost be insulted by that 😉

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I mean no insult…but that is pretty much what I do. I carry a fly swat as my one concession to “feminine values”
PS: Just to clarify, I see no correlation between feminine values and feminine gender on this issue.

Christian Moon
CM
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

And yet Baron-Cohen places systemising more in the masculine. Perhaps it is rule-following that is more an attribute of the empathising feminine, and not just rule-following but rule-seeking too.
Roissy was right.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Very interesting analysis. I am still all for following the rules rather than making a lifetime project of fluoting them.

Saul D
SD
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It’s clear from war crime trials that there are times when rules should not be followed. Principles and morals come first.
Getting the principle right is more important than the letter of the law. Then you choose how to respond to the rule. Even if this leads to bad personal outcomes like dissidents or whistleblowers (Snowden, Assange) or sufragettes.
In the absence of an active rule, you still apply the principle – fairness, justice, tolerance, duty, respect, dignity – often without needing to make an explicit rule.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I would completely agree with that. Only the main problem here is not people who prefer to follow higher principles, but people who think their own convenience or freedom from constraint is much more important than any rule.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I believe it was Douglas Bader who said rules were for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools – very much a male perspective.

Johanna Barry
Johanna Barry
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

As a very middleclass person, I would normally agree with you. But in the current climate, I feel the eductaed middleclasses have completely lost the plot. The great mask curfuffle says it all. My card carrying, data scientist friends have lapped up the hysterical nonsense about wearing a mask to be kind and are having canary caniptions because restrictions have been lifted and we are being told to choose for ourselves how to live. I have lost all respect and I am embracing my working class roots with pride. The current set of rules are utter nonsense and have nothing to do with anything except politics and the exercise of power. There is no honor in complying and I am with Lord Sumption, it is now a moral duty not to obey. I don’t think a government should be leading the normally obedient to take such positions. It does not bode well for the future.

Rasmus Fogh
RF
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Johanna Barry

On this one I am all with your friends.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Probably the most cogent and thoughtful comment I’ve seen on UnHerd.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

‘The law is necessary but freedom requires the ability know where it’s boundaries lie, not in making it boundless. There is certainly something of this in our Prime Minister, who has an uncanny nack of knowing which boundaries he can cross without fear of reprisal.’
Yes, we are free to break the law and then we pay the penalty if found guilty. Most law in this country is made to protect, preserve & facilitate not to curtail freedom. No, Boris Johnson doesn’t break laws. He uses privilege and wealth to protect him if he is taken to or goes to law.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Chelcie Morris
CK
Chelcie Morris
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

So this all boils down to the middle-class being control freaks. They’ve always been like this, which is what makes them so good at creating and maintaining businesses, but giving them the helm in government is a terrible thing to do because they will seek to control any and all variables to the point of dicatorship.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Class….

I have lived an odd life of being one of the very few not assigned a class, my family being up to weird stuff all my life put us in the mix of a lot of the higher levels, yet never a regular group. Being multi-national I was never really one thing or another, and so could always mix unselfish-consciously with any kind. Later in life when I became a down and out drifter for decades this also was very good as by speaking well, accent and speech mannerisms, one is given a great deal of slack by authority and everyone, really, even if you are a street person. The lifetime trained mannerisms of shaking hands, introducing ones self, the systemic ‘good manners’ – a thousand things, quantify one – and having just the right, innate, ways and speech gives one a bit of a pass. (Orwell talks well on this in his excellent book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’)

I have lived a great deal with the lower and under classes as well, and am right at home with them, and never had any thing but good from our class situation, I have never, ever, had it held against me.

So what I want to say on class is because I have a rare, and large, experience with class, spanning a range of cultures and nations. And so here it is:

Upper class are better than Middle Class, who are better than Lower Class, who are better than underclass. It is all true.

And here is the Key to it all. Upper Class train their children always. They eat meals at a table, with knifes and forks, water glasses, salads, wine glasses… The children are talked to, are expected to fallow conversation but not interject childish distractions. They learn adult conversation, the adults take great pains to teach concepts, manners, and discussion. Conversation grows to be on concepts, history, politics, and classics as the child ages, not just ‘what I did’.

Upper class go on holidays at points of great culture, where the children are dragged through museums, theater, Historic monuments, points of great history, great art, general aesthetics, classics, music, and so on. The adults talk to the children about this.

The upper-class children do excellent schools, and after do dance classes, tennis class, horse riding, sports, summer classes, math camp, language, mix with equally educated peers, and so on.

Middle class do a lot less of this all, but some. Lower class, almost none. The kids eat in front of a TV, with their hands or a spoon. Holidays are where they run wild at mindless resorts…

And there it is – how much effort you spend making your children sophisticated, well mannered, educated, conversational, and all rounded – and THIS IS A LOT OF WORK, but the upper class do it, as it is the only path to being upper class, and it is their duty to their children.

It takes 2 generations to move a class really. One can parrot another class if you live in it, but still are what you were formed to be. Your children can cross the class then. It is that hard. (And being class confident your down arrows mean nothing to me, I just do not care as I am so confident in my self)

David Harris
DH
David Harris
2 years ago

“Jess Phillips, like many prominent Labour MPs, comes from the comfortable ranks of the bourgeoise, her father having been a senior NHS administrator.”
Yes, and uses her (faux?) Brummie accent to fool people that she’s working class. She’s not.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  David Harris

That’s the beauty of Midland and Northern accents – they bestow immediate and unquestioned working-class cachet.

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Traditional conservatism was posited as an alliance between the toffs and the working classes against the bourgeoisie. This is fairly stark in Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

Anybody who has ever followed the England cricket team away, especially during the ashes, can testify to this. For a few glorious weeks you’ll have some lads from a northern council estate happily drinking and singing songs with a Viscount Rupert of Shropshire III. It’s a strange mix of top and bottom of society

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

Getting rid of the grammar schools was part of the class hypocrisy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

The Army has been recruiting on merit including from the middle classes for a long time. The demands of WW2 accelerated this when the Army further modernised its selection processes. The Army was using more lengthy but effective selection processes decades before they were introduced into the private sector.

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

Yes, but for a very long time before the Army discovered the merits of meritocracy, you needed an independent income to subsidise your officer lifestyle.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

I think it is widely accepted that until the (1870s) Cardwell reforms, things were very different. A long time ago.

Ferrusian Gambit
SS
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

Yes although nothing changed dramatically – read about the travails of Sir William Robertson – until the mass conscription of WW1 and especially WW2.

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
2 years ago

A great essay with a LOL last line; thanks for the belly laugh.

pwraleigh
PR
pwraleigh
2 years ago

.

Last edited 2 years ago by pwraleigh