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Amol Rajan

Amol Rajan is Assistant Editor on the Comment desk at The Independent. He was previously a news reporter and Sports News Correspondent, and writes columns for The Liberal and The Salisbury Review.

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The Cameroons' ignorance of how the poor live

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Tuesday, 19 May 2009 at 11:06 am
The most revealing part of Ginny Dougary's extended profile of David Cameron from Saturday's Times is worth interrogation.

Cameron is obsessed to the point of neurosis about his media image, and was concerned that the start of this ought not to make the final cut.  That's a good reason for reproducing it.

***

I wanted to know when he started caring about the poor. Did he ever come across poor people growing up? “Yes, of course.” When and how? “Well, in my home life, where I lived, you were very aware of the country you were in.”

Where in your home life? “I’m trying to think…” Did you know any poor people? “Yes, of course. People who are less well off than me, yes of course.” Where did you meet them? You didn’t meet them at Eton, did you?

“No, but at home.” How did you meet them at home? “I don’t want to disinter my entire childhood and who I played with and what it was like…”

He knew as well as I did that this wasn’t really a satisfactory response and so, a week later, sent me a longish e-mail attempting to make a link between his views now and how those seeds might first have been sewn.

“Here’s what I think. I was brought up in a stable and prosperous family. But we were always aware – and made aware – of just how fortunate we were. Mum was a magistrate for some 30 years and very plugged in to the community. We’d talk a lot about what she did and in many ways she embodied that sense of giving something back and public service that I believe in. Of course, the schools I went to were quite exclusive, but we weren’t cut off from the rest of the world and had quite a free country childhood in a busy and socially mixed village.”

***

The email didn't work.  It demonstrates Cameron's ignorance of how the poor live. 

That's hardly shocking: he went from a rectory in Peasemore to Eton to Oxford (and Bullingdon) to the Conservative Research Department (CRD) to Carlton and then back to the Tories.  

Hardly shocking, but important.

You see, whenever Cameron is asked how a man of his ilk can run the country, or why there are so many privately educated people on his top table, his instinctive reaction is to say William Hague, his "deputy in all but name", is hardly aristocratic stock.

The premise of that assertion is that William Hague is an archetypal Yorkshireman.   But William Hague is not an archetypal Yorkshireman.  He is an extremely impressive human being and a brilliant historian, but he is not an archetypal Yorkshireman.  Archetypal Yorkshiremen don't speak at Tory conferences at the age of 16, or get to be Tory leader at 36 having only ever worked at McKinsey between Oxford and a parliamentary career.

Gideon Osborne, meanwhile, folded towels in Selfridges as the only (brief) interruption on his route from St Paul's to Oxford (and Bullingdon) to CRD to Shadow Chancellor at 33.  An extremely impressive human being, yes, but not normal.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, to complete the quintet of five most powerful Tories in the country, were at Oxford with Cameron (gee-whizz: Gove even hung off Boris' coat-tails when the latter was President of the Union, a position to which Gove himself quickly ascended) and spent nearly two decades as journalists.  They were (and are) outstanding journalists.  But they too are Westminster climbers to their fingertips.

The reason all this matters is that at the very summit of modern British conservatism there is an astonishing and deeply worrying narrowness of experience.  

All this talk of the Notting Hill set - which, as Danny Finkelstein often explains, should really be called the Smith Square set - glamourises something appalling, namely the grotesque ignorance of how most Britons live amongst our next leaders.

It's true that Cameron's inspirational example as a father brought him into contact with many of the most vulnerable people in our society, and shows he's probably made of Prime Ministerial stuff.   But the sheer deficit of what Roger Scruton, one of my intellectual heroes, calls 'felt life' among senior Cameroons is awful. 

This was a problem even before Cameron instinctively surrounded himself at the top of the Tory party with fellow Etonians, from Danny Kruger (now doing heroic things at Only Connect) to Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff.

Democracy is nothing if it is not representation. Cameron's branching out of the Tory grassroots, bringing in people such as the repulsively reactionary Priti Patel and inspirationally industrious Shaun Bailey, is to be applauded. 

But the Cameroon revolution remains largely a vehicle for the ascent to power of people with exceptionally limited knowledge of how most people in Britain live.  (This rather puts their gloomy 'Broken Britain' theme into perspective).  

In spending nearly two decades swimming through the grease of Westminster, the likes of Cameron and Osborne are of course no different to the Milibands, Balls', and Cleggs of Britain.

Anyone who points these things out is usually labelled a Marxist or, even more foolishly, a class warrior (Quentin Letts and Martin van der Weyer are especially prolific at this vacuous exercise). 

Believe me, I despise the prolier-than-thou crowd more than most.  Lord knows I'm no proletarian hero.  What I describe above is merely the most incontrovertible evidence of what Peter Oborne, a conservative, brilliantly enunciated as the triumph of the political class.  It's bad for democracy.

Comments

nullius123 wrote:
Tuesday, 19 May 2009 at 05:04 pm (UTC)
Super article. I wonder how well the Tory spin machine can keep this experiential deficit from the public. And when Cameron is Prime Minister (surely inevitable now), how long will it take before this political blind spot turns into a weak spot that undoes him and his splendid chums?
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